Forming the research question

From topic to research question: a systematic approach to analysing the literature


Students often arrive in supervisors’ offices with a broad notion of what they wish to investigate. They have a topic but they do not have a research question.

If students are to complete their PhDs in the allotted time, it is imperative that they make good progress in the early stages of their candidacy. They need to move through their study of the relevant literature to a clear and practicable research question.

This tool offers two aids and an explanation of a systematic approach to analysing literature and reaching a clearly defined research question.

From topic to research question

Using the flow chart ‘Finding Your Research Question’ will help candidates find patterns in the literature relating to their area of research interest so that they can identify a worthwhile issue to investigate. (The grid referred to in the flow chart can be seen by clicking ‘Sorting the Literature’.) An explanation of the categories used in the flow chart and the grid can be found here.

Supervisors who assist their students as they attempt to answer the questions in the flow chart will bring the most benefit out of this process. Students may need their supervisors’ expertise to understand the discipline and the particular section of it they wish to study, and to help them locate the material they are reading in the broader context of the field. Some students may not be well-acquainted with the broad context of a discipline. They may have learned a lot of content, but they may not be really comfortable discussing different research methods, the relationship of different theoretical perspectives to their own preferred method, and the values that determine the questions one is asked.

Consequently, many theses present fascinating evidence (or data) but fail to place that evidence adequately in context. Students often need help at this vital stage of their candidacy. This is truly when a supervisor can initiate them into the discipline. The structure provided in this tool will help students write a thesis which answers the following questions, thus demonstrating their understanding of the place of their own work in the broad context of their field:

  • What is the topic?
  • What is the research question?
  • How is the research question related to what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know about the topic?
  • What evidence do I need to answer the question?
  • What is the significance of the answer?

How to use the grid and flow chart

This material was provided to the fIRST Consortium by Professor Frank Lewins, Professor of Sociology, Head of the School of Social Sciences, Australian National University. The material was further developed by Dr Margaret Kiley (ANU) and Kevin Ryland (UTS).

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