Careers, Guest blog

Blog – What should I research and how do I formulate the question?

Blog by Dr Emily Oliver

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Hello everyone, If you have been reading my previous blogs, you will know that I am keen to continue to grow the research element to my career as, due to a number of reasons, this hasn’t been on the top of my agenda within my current role. This is big priority for me and as such I have been thinking about what to research. Although I have completed a Phd which can be seen as the basis for a post-doc, I see myself as going back to basics in terms of choosing a research focus and even more importantly, a research question.  It might be that you have undertaken many research projects but are struggling to pinpoint you next question, or it may be that that you are new to research – in this blog, I will be sharing hints and tips which I think would be beneficial to both scenarios, so I do hope you are able to take something from this.

First and foremost and again if you have read my previous blogs, you will know that I say this a lot – pick a topic you are interested in. Of course, we need to consider the gaps in the evidence base (and lets be honest what topics are being funded, and what is important to the community you are working with, people living with dementia and their carers for me) but for me, the most important consideration that trumps all else is whether you are passionate about the topic. Real talk here, research is tough – it is often full of setbacks, rejection, early starts and late nights and it is that passion and interest in a topic that will keep you motivated through it all and keep you going.

Once you have found a topic that you are interested in, the next step is to try and narrow it down. I would kick with some preliminary reading around the topic, start by scoping the literature that focuses on your topic of choice and start to ask yourself questions such as: What is known about this topic?  How do we build on what is known? What remains unanswered? Has this been explored in other settings?  What does this look like for this population? What are the issues and how could they be resolved?  Whilst your reading, start to jot down some ideas of topic areas and even draft some example questions – if you are a visual learner like me, get your colouring pens out and make a mind-map.

This would also be a good time to start thinking about the type of question you want to ask. The type of question you ask will vary depending on what you want to find out and have implications on your methodology.  In some types of research, social sciences for example, it may be that you are able to have very-open ended research questions, and in some cases, quantitative research for example, if may be that the question is much more specific.  See the table below for more examples of research questions (taken from:

Research Question Formulation
Descriptive research What are the characteristics of X?
Comparative research What are the differences and similarities between X and Y?
Correlational research What are the main factors in X? What is the role of Y in Z?
Exploratory research Does X have an effect on Y? What is the impact of Y on Z? What are the causes of X?
Explanatory research Does X have an effect on Y? What is the impact of Y on Z? What are the causes of X?
Evaluation research What are the advantages and disadvantages of X? How well does Y work? How effective or desirable is Z?
Action Research How can X be achieved? What are the most effective strategies to improve Y?

Whether you are more interested in quantitative or qualitative research, my advice would be to try and have a more focused approach. Open ended research questions can often lead to confusion in what to record and thus the collection of large data sets which can become hard to manage.

Once you have a few questions jotted down, its time to then evaluate them. There are a few characteristics of research questions that we should be sure we meet.

Will it make an original contribution?  

The purpose of research is to generate new knowledge to fill gaps in the evidence base. When looking at your question, ensure that it is original and that is hasn’t already been answered. Its also worth checking whether its big enough to be considered research and that its not service development or an audit. The Health Research Authority have a useful tool to help with this.

Does it have connections with theory and /or research?

Although we need to find gaps in the evidence base, it is important that there is already some theory or research that you can draw from. This may not be in your specialism, there may be research similar in different areas or there may be related topics.  If there isn’t already something of relevance, it may raise the question of whether it’s worth researching!!

Is the question clear?

Research questions do often need to be long and have multiple components, so I think its important to say that clear doesn’t always mean short. A good way to test the clarity of your question is to explain it to a lay person and see if they understand it. If you can’t explain your research question clearly, its unlikely someone else will be able to understand it.

Is it concise?

There is a fine balance between making a research question too broad or too narrow. Research questions need to be broad enough to make a contribution, however, it is all key to ensure that you aren’t trying to change the world. I remember when I started, I thought I was going to fix dementia care with my PhD, however after a few months and a reality check, I quickly realised this was not the case – it was just one small brick adding to a whole wall of research and actually that’s more than enough.

If you think you can answer yes to all of these questions, then its probably time to share these with your supervisor and get going with your formal literature search and your proposal. Its key to remember that depending on what you want to research, this process could take days or it could take months. I also think its realistic to think that your research question may slightly change as your research progresses as you get taken in all different directions. My last piece of advice is to try and enjoy this time – its exciting to be generating a question that will be creating new knowledge and it’s a real luxury to have a justified reason to take the time to read articles and scope the literature to do so.

See you next time,


Dr Emily Oliver is Lead Nurse for Dementia at Portsmouth Hospital University NHS Trust and a former Consultant Admiral Nurse for Dementia UK,  and visiting Fellow at the University of Southampton and Florence Nightingale Scholar. Emily recently completed her NIHR Clinical Academic Doctorate at the University of Southampton, in which the focus was relational care for people with dementia in acute hospital wards.


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