A doctoral research project is often seen by those outside of academia as dedicated to answering a big, unresolved problem in a particular field. On rare occasions, this is indeed the case. More frequently, however, a doctorate involves posing questions, rather than necessarily finding answers, and generating new fields of enquiry for researchers to study. How, then, does one go about deciding upon a research question?
This issue is of paramount importance for anyone considering an application for a place on a PhD programme. The research questions that a given project seeks to ask will be of substantial importance in determining whether a proposal is a considered to be a good fit for a particular institution or faculty. However, originating new, innovative questions in frequently crowded research fields can seem like a daunting prospect.
There are several approaches prospective doctoral researchers can take towards developing a research question. Often, this will originate as a natural outgrowth of a researcher’s Master’s thesis, or even as a result of work conducted at undergraduate level. Not all prospective candidates are fortunate enough to have such a clear path from prior work towards the doctorate, however.
In this instance, it is often useful to return to first principles. For example, formulating a research question may involve some collaborative work through discussions with your peers in their field and/or your supervisor. Discussions with senior academics can also be very useful in helping to formulate the research field and the resulting research question(s). The PhD Consultancy works with a number of top academics who are available to advise on prospective research topics, in addition with other aspects of the PhD application process.