Crafting a Research Question

All research begins with one key step: crafting a clear and focused research question. Your research question will help you identify the specific objectives of your research. It will be the focus of your research and help keep you on track.

To find your research question, first find an area that’s interesting to you. Are you interested in teenage pregnancy? Begin by exploring UNL faculty research areas.  Who is conducting research on teenage pregnancy? Once you’ve identified faculty who are investigating this issue, schedule a meeting to talk about their research. Prepare for the meeting by looking at what they’ve published, and also do some preliminary reading about the topic. The library is a great resource for this, as are the subject librarians.

Next, read summaries of research in journals. After you’ve read about your topic, narrow your focus. A topic will be difficult to research if it’s too broad. What hasn’t been addressed in previous research? What questions does previous research raise? After you’ve thought about these questions, ask yourself if these questions will have appeal to a broader audience.

As you develop your research question, check that it is:

  • Clear. A research question makes sense not only to you, but also to researchers in your area.
  • Researchable. A research question can be developed into a full research project, where data can be collected to answer your question. Your research question cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” but requires analytical work and research to arrive at a satisfactory answer.
  • Part of a larger dialogue. If you’ve already been to the library and done some background research, you should have an idea of what has been written in your area and you may have ideas about where your research will fit.
  • Clearly defined. A good research question is neither too broad (Immigration around the World) nor too narrow (Immigration to Lincoln, Nebraska in the spring of 1912). If your topic is too broad, consider narrowing it through one of these limiting factors:
    • Geographic region. Immigration to the US
    • Culture. How might culture have affected how immigrants adjusted to America?
    • Time frame. What was different about immigration in the 1950s compared to the first half of the 20th Century?
    • Population group. Do immigrants from Italy have a different experience than those from Vietnam?

Once you’ve developed your research question, start thinking about how to answer it. What do you think you are going to discover? A well-crafted research question should lead directly to your hypotheses. Make statements about what you think you are going to learn (your hypotheses). If your research doesn’t support your hypotheses, will your audience have learned something new? Could you report those findings and support them with new hypotheses?

After you've thought through your research question(s) and hypotheses, you can then begin to develop the steps needed to test your hypotheses and answer your research question (your methods). These are the key ingredients to a well-developed research project.

Writing Your Research Abstract

The UCARE Research Abstract offers a detailed outline of the research project and serves as a roadmap for your research. An abstract includes the following elements:

  • Statement of purpose states the problem you are trying to solve. A statement of purpose might begin:
    • This study will examine ...
    • This study examined …
  • Research question includes the question(s) you are trying to solve. The research question is a concise statement that flows from your statement of purpose. The research question translates into a thesis statement that you prove or disprove with research:
    • Graduate students in AAE classes who use the e-Instruction responders will score higher on mid-term and final exams than graduate students in AAE classes who do not use the e-Instruction responders.
    • United States government regulation has little effect in the fight against air pollution.
    • In the United States, government regulation plays an important role in the fight against air pollution.
    • All of these thesis statements can be proven or disproven, and they cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
  • Significance of research argues for the significance of your research and how it will contribute to the field or the community. Address:
    • Why the research is important.
    • To whom the research is important
    • How the research will contribute to scholarship and/or the community.
  • Methods of data collection explains in detail how you plan to collect your data. Will you be using quantitative (numbers or amounts) or qualitative (quality or kind) data? Define the terms and variables that you’re using in the study, and be sure to describe how you’ll collect, analyze, and interpret your data. If you are using data that’s already been collected as part of another project, describe where the data are from and how you will access it.
  • Analysis of data outlines how you plan to analyze the data. How you analyze your data will depend on the research question. Make sure that your analysis will clearly answer your research question.
  • Benchmarks includes a realistic and thorough timeline, presented as a series of benchmarks. Benchmarks are clearly defined tasks that you can check off as “done.” Some examples: IRB certification, library research/review, collecting data, data analyses, producing a work of art/installations, writing a research paper, presenting research at a conference, and preparing a poster.

If you write your proposal to include these elements in order, you’re off to a good start. Have a roommate or trusted friend read through your abstract. Is there anywhere that you’re too general? Are your methods not clear? Is your writing clear, or are your sentences unnecessarily complex? Having a friend ask these questions helps you create a better draft. From there, you’ll want to share your abstract with your research advisor for feedback.

The abstract will be approximately 1,400-1,800 words. Of course, your abstract may be shorter. If you’ve addressed each of the elements well, don’t add extra words just to hit a specific word count.

Remember: After you’ve drafted your abstract and before you submit it as part of your UCARE application, you should get feedback and approval from your faculty research advisor.