Advice for Dissertation Advisors 2: Focus on Problem Definition

This is reposted from the TAAOnline blog.

Defining a good research question is crucial to developing a successful research project, and it is no easy task. For some, defining a good question comes easily, but for many, especially doctoral candidates who may have never developed their own research project before, it is a great hurdle. And, as I suggested in the previous post, if the research purpose and question aren’t defined, then there’s no point in your looking at other stuff: if your student hasn’t defined the research purpose clearly, they’ll have trouble making progress.

A good definition of research question or purpose is not only crucial, it’s usually really easy for a reader to find in skimming through a paper. Most drafts have several sentences that say things like “the purpose of this research is…” and “the research question is…”. These sentences need to be clear, and they need to agree with each other (multiple conflicting statements of purpose can often be found in early drafts of research). One of the first things I look for when I read a draft is a clear statement of purpose. If a draft looks problematic—poorly edited or shows other obvious signs of weakness—I’ll almost immediately limit my review to skimming in search of any statements of purpose.

Often, there will be several statements of purpose in any given draft of research writing: the abstract states the purpose of the work, as does the beginning of the introduction. Many introductions include a statement of the problem and a statement of the significance, which are a pair of related statements about purpose. And then there are research questions, which are defined by how they respond to the intended purpose. If these several statements aren’t coherent, or don’t suggest a coherent and practical research project, feedback needs to start there, with the foundational stuff. Spend your time explaining the problems and offering suggestions on refining and focusing the research project into one single task that is enough for a research project. If you’re doubting the quality of the work, skim for such statements, and if they don’t all line up, focus your effort on getting a clear statement of purpose.

Students who have not done their own research before often try to stick many related but distinct questions into one study. It’s pretty easy to slide between distinct but related facets of one project, especially if one has limited experience setting up a research project.When faced with some problem or phenomenon, they shift between asking about causes, asking about impacts, and asking about responses. All three of these things are reasonable areas for study, of course, but they are also disparate areas of research. To study causes of poor educational outcomes, for example, different data and different analyses are required than to study the effects of poor educational outcomes or ways to improve poor educational outcomes.

For students who are aiming at professional careers—educators, clinicians, etc.,—such ideas naturally work together to address the practical concern for responding to some real-world phenomenon. An educator quite naturally might think about the causes, effects, and possible responses to poor educational outcomes as part of the same problem because from the perspective of a professional practice, they are part of the same problem. But from a researcher’s perspective, they are quite distinct, and many students benefit from having those distinctions made clear. Viewing the different dimensions as part of an integral whole is a great view for a professional practice, which can create a strong emotional attachment to addressing all the issues. But it’s a lousy practical approach to research, especially when the researcher running the project is a student who has never before completed an independent research project, so it’s good to force focus. To get over that kind of resistance, it might be effective to tell them to try to focus on one aspect as a first step to defining the larger array of issues. Once students start to see the complexity involved in researching the single dimension, they start to appreciate the need to leave out the other issues.

Checking for consistent and useful statements of purpose can be an effective tool to review documents quickly. Those that have conflicting statements of purpose can get feedback on narrowing their focus without having to wade through details of a project. Keep in mind that if they redefine the purpose, a good deal of the rest of the material will also need to be rewritten, which means that effort spent giving feedback on the body of a work with poorly defined purpose may be wasted.

Often, I see feedback that is grossly inefficient, both in terms of helping the student learn and in terms of saving the professor time. Most often this is feedback that focuses on grammar instead of examining and critiquing the focus and purpose of the work. An example of this that I recently saw was a student’s methods chapter draft for which the professor’s feedback had been that it needed better sentence structure and paragraph structure before higher-level feedback could be given. The professor had read the whole draft and commented in many places on a 25-page draft. It must have taken at least an hour, if not twice that, to do all that reading and to make all those comments. But in the first two pages there were obvious problems with the hypotheses. As soon as I saw that, it gave me a clue of what else to look for and I quickly found large chunks of the chapter really belonged in the literature review. Bad definition of the hypotheses (i.e., the research questions) led to bad choice of content. These problems were much more pressing than the grammatical problems, which were no more than one would expect in any early draft (it was far from perfect, but it was not hard to read). In this case, by focusing on the problems with the hypotheses (which are an expression of the researcher’s purpose), big problems with the study’s foundations were identified.”

Until a sense of purpose is clear and research questions well defined, there is little need to attend to other aspects of a project, so if you’re looking to save time, you benefit from starting with the statement(s) of purpose. Skipping the details of a project with a poorly defined purpose isn’t a failure to give students the attention they deserve, it’s giving attention to the top priorities. And, from the perspective of the student, although it might be difficult to hear that the project is not well defined, focusing attention on defining the research purpose and questions can help avoid many pitfalls that graduate students fall into (especially the trap of trying to read everything ever published). Save time by focusing on getting the purpose and question right before looking at other stuff.