PhD Research Questions – They are Not for Wusses

The most underestimated aspect of the PhD, especially in the beginning and by new students, is the research question. No, don’t roll your eyes and skip to another article – stay here and read. It really matters.

Research questions are not just a statement of what you want to study – such as the implications of EU Law on a particular country. No, they are a statement and a recognition of a particular problem. If you go to your supervisor saying that you want to study the amorous intentions of the bumble bee they will, in high probability, nod wisely and then send you away to go think of a question. A research question.

You will skip of happily thinking this is easy and come back with something like: What are the amorous intentions of the bumble bee? This is when your Supervisor will grin and send you away to define your terms. That should be easy, should it not? You now will discover that there are between 25 and 250 candidates of species for your study – and this is before you have defined what an amorous intention is.

This will be your next few weeks, possibly months. Pretty much until you have something like (and this is where my pretty little example breaks down as I have no idea about biology, or zoology): How does the Carbon Dioxide concentration in the first week of April affect the mating behaviour of the female of the species bombus hortorum?

You think you have got it now? Nope. Your supervisor now nods again and asks you – so how do you think it does affect it? And that is when you hear the dreaded term: hypothesis. I will get to that next week.

The point I am making is that you will never write your PhD on bumblebees, not even on the mating behaviour thereof. You will write your PhD on a very small, seemingly tiny aspect of it. And that is how knowledge grows. So, if you are thinking of a PhD, you can do your supervisor a favour right away. Come up with a research question – even a broad one.