How to Write a Research Question

Academic Writing updated on  March 30, 2023 5 min read
Research questions are a key part of any research paper. To write them well, you must understand what makes an effective research question and follow the six simple steps below.

What is a research question?

It’s a question that establishes what you aim to learn by conducting your research. It asks for information that is missing or the solution to a problem, which many papers describe in a problem statement.

The purpose of a research question is to give your research proposal or paper a sharp focus. It helps both you and your readers stay locked onto the knowledge you’re trying to gain or the problem you’re trying to solve. In a sense, writing a research question is like setting a goal and posting it prominently on your wall.

Steps to develop a research question

Since research questions are such a crucial part of a research paper, you’ll want to devote a reasonable amount of time and effort to writing them well. The following six steps can guide you through the basic process. Then, in the next section, we’ll talk more about how to write a research question that gives your research paper a laser focus.

1. Choose a topic

When writing any research paper, you need to choose a subject that you’re interested in, which makes the research easier to complete. It should also be a topic that is specific enough to give you the chance to contribute new knowledge but not so specific that you can’t find any previous discussion of it.

2. Browse the literature

Look through existing papers on the topic to see what has already been said about it. Distinguish between more and less reliable sources and take note of any consensus or disagreement.

Writing down the most valuable sources you find now will help you save time later. QuillBot’s Citation Generator can help you gather all the citation details you need, avoid plagiarism, and format them properly—another time-saver.

Need to Cite sources used by you?
QuillBot's Citation Generator will enable you to quickly create citations in APA, MLA, Chicago, and other styles.

3. Write down any questions that come to mind

What isn’t covered in the papers you’re finding? For example, maybe a specific group of people isn’t mentioned or you notice a pattern for which there seems to be no explanation.

4. Consider your constraints

The time span, budget, and audience for, say, a doctoral dissertation are very different from those for an undergrad or high school paper. What kind of ground can you cover with the time and resources you have? What knowledge might your readers be interested in?

5. Write

Because research questions are meant to find solutions to problems, it makes a lot of sense to phrase your question based on your problem statement. The problem you zero in on should be one you arrived at while perusing previous research—think of it as the next logical step in learning about that topic.

Consider the questions you wrote down in Step 3 within the restrictions you came up with in Step 4. Write a specific question that you can look for an answer to within those constraints.

6. Edit

Always check and double-check your work before you consider it done. Use the checklist at the end of this article to make sure you haven’t missed any key traits of a potent research question. Then review your work for correct grammar, concision, and other traits of exceptional academic writing. QuillBot’s Grammar Checker and Plagiarism Checker are (literally) priceless tools at this stage.

Polish your writing and ensure that it is error-free.
QuillBot's grammar checker makes sure that your work is polished and error-free.

How to write a good research question

As you’re working through the steps above, you’ll need to consider what makes a research question effective. The goal is to write a certain type of question.

First, it must focus on a niche within your field of study. A question that’s too open-ended can take an entire library’s worth of writing to answer, so you need to sharpen your focus to a fine point. Still, it shouldn’t be so focused that there are few or no previous studies related to the topic. Also, it should be objective rather than sounding like you’re fishing for a specific result, which could come across as biased.

  • Example of a research question that’s too general: How do minimum wage laws affect workers?

  • Example of a research question that’s too specific: How do minimum wage laws affect employment among immigrant high school students in Monemvasia, Italy?

  • Example of a research question that sounds biased: Do minimum wage laws increase unemployment among autistic high school students in New York City.

  • Example of an effective research question: How do minimum wage laws affect employment among autistic high school students in New York City?

Note that all of these example research questions, as well as the ones below, focus on the topic of teenage employment. However, each of them looks at this general topic from a different angle, which is what your research question should do.

Your research question should look for information no one else has already provided. You should be able to answer it only by gathering evidence, not by giving a simple yes or no or a totally subjective opinion. The question must require synthesis and analysis, not a single source, to resolve. And it should contain words that are specific and clearly defined in your field, not words that are vague and open to interpretation.

These are some clues that you may need to reword your question:

  • Prescriptive words: should, ought
  • Value-based words: good, bad, better, worse, adjectives reflecting an opinion
  • Words that have multiple meanings not clarified by the context

A good research question likely will not have one “right” answer. Depending on the type of research paper you’re writing, your question may be answerable using different data, or it may be answerable by drawing on different perspectives. For instance, if you’re writing an empirical research paper, your question will search for data that can be observed and tested:

  • Empirical research question example: What factors affect the unemployment rate among US high school students with various types of disabilities?

However, a research question for a non-empirical research paper will look for an evidence-based argument from previous sources, practices, or theories:

  • Non-empirical research question example: How do differences in education methods used to teach disabled and non-disabled high school students affect their preparedness for employment?

Use the “write” tools

By following our six simple steps, using the short checklist below, and taking advantage of QuillBot’s convenient writing tools, you can write a precise and complex research question as part of an outstanding research paper.

What makes a good research question?

  • Focuses on a specific aspect of your chosen topic
  • Is based on the existing body of research on the topic
  • Can be answered using reliable sources
  • Can be answered within the allotted time and budget
  • Cannot be answered simply or with little effort
  • Seeks information that matters to others in the field
  • Cannot be answered by giving an opinion
  • Cannot be answered by giving instructions or recommendations
  • Can be argued through further research

What are the 3 most common mistakes when writing a research question?

When learning how to write a research question, students often make mistakes by writing a question that is not specific enough, writing one that is not clear, or choosing a topic without reviewing the existing literature.

What are the 3 types of research questions?

The three main types of research questions are causal, relational, and descriptive:

  • Causal—asks how one thing affects another
  • Relational—asks whether or how two things are linked
  • Descriptive—asks about the way something is


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Meredith Harris

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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