Tips for developing PhD research questions

Time management skills and extensive reading can help students develop a sophisticated set of research questions. Plus the latest higher education jobs and appointments

October 2, 2014

Researching a PhD for the first time is like a quest for which you have no map or overarching strategy to guide you, according to Victoria ­Perselli, associate professor in the School of Education at Kingston University.

Students are expected to lay down the theories that will underpin their research on their own, and many find this a struggle.

“Nobody can really pre-specify what that [theory] will be, or what sort of theory might fit best with what you want to know,” said Dr Perselli.

An important starting point to developing theory is reading, she added. “Right from the beginning, reading very widely and deeply is key because that helps you see exactly who else has researched that area already, which is something that you need to know,” she said. It also flags up the key thinkers in a particular area from the past and present day and shows how they describe what they know.

“That desk-based element of the research is very important because it broadens your own vocabulary and it enables you to think and to talk about theories that are already out there,” she said.

Armed with this information, doctoral students can then seek to understand what they could add to the field with the design of their own research questions. One way of getting a grip on this could be to look at people currently working in the field who have taken theory from the past and reframed it for the present, Dr Perselli suggested. This can help to further expand an individual’s lexicon, which in turn helps them to develop more sophisticated research questions.

Many students are caught out by exactly how much time and space is needed for this in-depth thinking. One of the most common pitfalls for PhD students is to underestimate the extent to which his or her life needs to be organised in order to provide necessary space and quality time to develop a theory.

Regularly discussing desk-based research with a supervisor will eventually lead to the development of a theory that fits your ideas and methodologies together. But a supervisor cannot tell you what to do or how to find solutions. Students must take ownership of the research and its development at this early stage, Dr Perselli said.

The theory is mapped on to an individual’s investigation, which is ongoing in an iterative process. The gathering and analysis of data during this stage should then be synthesised with time spent reading and writing along the way.

“You are thinking and discussing and writing all the way through…The thesis that you end up with will not be the sum of that work,” she said, adding that only a portion of it will make the final cut.

Students should be encouraged when their findings do not correlate with the theory, added Dr Perselli. “That is where it gets exciting,” she said. There would be nothing new to say if the findings had a direct and obvious relationship to the theory, she added.

It is the surprises “that take your breath away” that allow a researcher to take stock of what is known already and to look at how the findings relate to the theory. Using the new vocabulary gleaned from the exhaustive reading of the field can help figure out this enigma, she said.


Judith Squires has been appointed a council member for the Economic and Social Research Council by Greg Clark, the universities minister. Professor Squires is pro vice-chancellor for education and students at the University of Bristol.

The University of Huddersfield has made two new professorial appointments to the School of Art, Design and Architecture. Dilanthi Amaratunga and Richard Haigh are both experts in the built environment.

Donna Lee has joined the University of Bradford as dean of social and international studies. Professor Lee was previously at the University of Kent, where she was professor of
international political economy and diplomacy.

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford have made Lucie Burgess associate director for digital libraries. Ms Burgess, who will join in November, is currently head of online services at the British Library.

A University of Manchester professor has been made the president of the European Association for Cancer Research. Richard Marais will hold the position from 2014 to 2016.

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.