What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question. – Jonas Salk
The (Research) Question* is the beating heart of your thesis. Without it, you just have 80,000 or so words collected together. For those of a certain age (and geekiness), if your Question is the Dream, then the Thesis is the Dream Given Form. Perhaps that’s a little grand.
*Sometimes referred to as the Research Imperative, except when it would interfere with a perfectly good ‘Q’.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed these posts enough to allow me a small etymological digression. The word clue has to come mean something that you can use to identify something or somebody when you have incomplete information. Hence, a detective, spots a clue, e.g. a footprint and, identifying unique features about it uses it to hunt down the owner of the shoe that made the footprint. The word become common thanks to the onslaught of detective fiction, The word was originally spelled ‘clew’ and Ariadne gave Theseus a clew of thread which he was able to use to mark his progress through the labyrinth – he was able to follow his clew back out after he had slain the Minotaur. So detectives follow clews, which link A with B – a fingerprint with an individual, a question with an answer.
What I have been trying to do through this series of posts, and will of course continue to try to do until the end of the month, is follow a few specific clues, which I hope will identify some general good practice that will help you to write your thesis. One of these is that a key feature of doctoral research is the thesis. The thesis is the embodiment of your research and if the thesis is to have meaning then it must represent the answer to a question.
In practice, you might never explicitly state the question. This may seem strange, but depending on the nature of the research, the question may be almost impossible to state in a succinct enough manner to be meaningful. Or it may be that stated baldly, it appears to be relatively trite or inconsequential. If stated, it may appear to be a criticism of previous researchers’ efforts.
Suffice it to say that there are reasons why you might want to approach the research question elliptically , rather than head on. One way is to make the question implicit, by stating some aims and objectives. These, together with a suitable introduction to the context of the problem, which you will probably need anyway, can do away with the need to state the question baldly.
What may also seem strange is that you might not start your research with a question (per se), or it might change dramatically half-way through. Some supervisors, in some circumstances, like to treat the formulation of a research question as a milestone in the programme; at other times it may be set as the first task – go and read the literature and work out what the question is.
My own experience, both as a student and supervisor, is that the question is frequently organic, growing and changing as you undertake new and different experiments. What should certainly be the case is that your question, or at least the beginnings of it, should always be with you, certainly once you’ve got to grips with what it is that you are actually supposed to be doing as a researcher. Most of the time it might be relatively quiescent, at the back of your mind, tickling occasionally as you go about the daily routine – research is a job like any other, in some ways. Sometimes it will appear to be all consuming and you can think of little else. This requires careful management, and a conscious engagement. Anyone who has read ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’* will recognise how easy it is to become literally lost in thought. Hence, the research question and your consideration of it, should be a source of positive energy, driving you on to the completion of the thesis, rather than a Churchillian ‘Black Dog’ holding you back.
*More recently, it might instead be ‘has watched Inception’.
I started with a quote, and I’d like to end with one: between these two, I think you can find most, if not all, of what you need to know about the research question.
“It’s not that I’m so smart. I stay with the questions much longer.” – Albert Einstein