Picking a Research Problem and Planning the Research- Considerations

How do you pick the correct research problem?

One thing that should be a primary concern for doctoral students is finding the correct research problem on which to base the dissertation. Having the correct problem is much like having the right foundation when building a house. If the foundation is weak or defective, the entire house structure will be adversely affected and in many cases, will require the builder to start over. This is a tremendous waste of time, effort, and money that could be avoided by asking some fundamental questions early in the process. Asking those fundamental questions when preparing for the dissertation is critical to future success.

Things to Consider

Let’s assume that you have found a scholarly research problem. Your next step is to develop a plan to address that problem; this is your purpose. While finding the specific problem is critical to developing your dissertation, having a viable purpose is also important. What questions should you ask to develop a viable purpose? The overarching question is whether the proposed research is doable. There are many sub-questions to address. Addressing these issues before becoming invested in the current proposal is essential to your success. The following is a partial list of some of the questions you should ask before planning your research. There will be other questions depending upon your specific research plan.

How Will I Access The Data?

  • Can I access the necessary data to address the problem? Data can take many forms and will vary greatly depending upon the selected method, approach, and design.
  • If you seek existing data, will you be able to access the sources of that data?
  • Will the documents, databases, or other archives be accessible?
  • If you want to collect new data of some kind, do you have the correct instrument(s) to do it? Adapting existing instruments to meet your needs or creating new ones can be time-consuming and tedious.
  • Who will be authorized to give permission to access the data?
  • Will I be able to get permission to access the data?

Do I Have Enough Time to Do the Research?

Your dissertation is only a small beginning step as an independent scholar. Your research efforts will not solve the world’s problems. You must deal with the reality of time requirements to complete your work. For example, few dissertations if any would be focused on longevity studies.

So what are the things to consider when choosing a research problem?

First and foremost, is the problem one that is important to those in the field? Are authors identifying the problem? There are numerous aspects of a given topic that have been investigated by scholars in the field and in the course of their research, new questions continually surface. That is the nature of scholarly work; the process of answering one research question generates a multitude of new questions. Are the scholars in the field recommending further research to clarify or expand current knowledge and understanding about the problem? Lots of things can be researched and many may have little or no significance. Scholarly work is driven by the constant “scholarly digging” that uncovers significant new knowledge and simultaneously uncovers and exposes those important aspects about which we have only a partial explanation or understanding. These two things are key to finding a scholarly research problem. Is it identified by other scholars in the field as a significant problem and are there current recommendations for further research about the problem?

Considerations about Human Participants

Many studies rely on human participants for providing answers to questions, often in the form of responses to interview questions, through journal entries, surveys, or questionnaires. Sometimes, observations of human behavior provide an additional source of data.

-Will you be able to get the right participants, those who will provide accurate answers to your research questions?
-Are they consenting adults, children, or other groups that have special protection as research subjects?
-Where are the participants located?
-Will my position as a researcher intimidate participants, leading to inaccurate data?
-How will my cultural, social, and other biases impact my research?
-Will I be able to get permission to recruit them?
-If I can get permission, how will I be able to contact them for the interviews, observations or other types of data collection? Researchers in education must often contend with school schedules. Timing is everything as many schools have summer breaks.
-What is my contingency plan if I cannot get enough participants from the current population?
-Will my research result in undue risk for the participants?
-Will they be placed in harmful situations?
-Will I be placing myself in a high-risk situation?

Do I Have the Skills Necessary to Do the Research?

Your coursework should prepare you with the research skills necessary to conduct your research. You should choose a method that will provide the data to answer the research questions but should also consider whether you have the research skills necessary to use the selected method. In qualitative research, students often decide to use one-to-one interviews to gather data yet have no idea of what is involved in developing the right questions or what interviewing skills/techniques will be most effective in getting the answers. They often attempt to conduct participant observations without understanding how to do it effectively. The result is mediocre data and results that yield few if any new insights about the research problem. Similarly, students using quantitative methods often lack the knowledge to use the selected design. Attempting to use an approach and research design with which you are unfamiliar accomplishes little other than to increase your level of frustration as your committee continues to ask for revisions.

Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail

You have decided to embark on a demanding journey, to move to the ultimate level in your scholarly work. Pursuing a dissertation is a life-changing experience that will demand tremendous amounts of your time, energy, and money. Like most life events, it is something that should be seriously considered and discussed before making the final commitment.

Why would anyone make such a decision and then fail to take the time to consider a detailed plan for success? There are many reasons why doctoral students become members of the All But Dissertation group (ABD), those students who have completed everything except the dissertation. Failing to consider many of the questions discussed in this post is a front runner in those reasons.

Check out this excellent video about identifying the specific research problem!!