Research questions

So now we (well me at least) think the subject matter is very interesting. But what research questions are interesting and answerable within the context of a PhD?


I will not go into detail about my specific questions, but I thought I could at least give an overview of the process of getting from a general idea to something that ends up in a paper. There are great books that give suggestions about how to write a dissertation and go about choosing a question (e.g. here). Here is my personal experience.

I think I started out with something I thought was a research question, but really was a career research focus. My advisor was amazingly helpful at making me come down to more reasonable questions that might work within my time-frame and build towards that larger career research goal. Some of the things that help me focus my questions were:

  1. Trying to tease apart a larger research question into smaller sub-questions
  2. Thinking of each sub-question and an associated method(s) to answer it
  3. How much time would it to carry-out those methods to legitimately answer the question.
  4. Start over (one of the sub-questions is now really a “large” question I have to widdle down)

In order to prepare my thesis proposal I went through the list above more than once. Each time doing more reading on methods to be sure I was selecting appropriate ones to answer my questions.

I felt like I had a good and feasible plan when I defended my proposal in front of a committee of professors. Still, as I now delve more deeply in to my chapter on agriculture and cities, I find myself having to narrow my questions even more, and having to change my methods to better answer those questions within reasonable time delays.


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