Formulating research questions for your thesis?

This is how to do it!

Having clear research questions is the starting point of your thesis. These questions give direction to your research and the method you choose. There are two types of research questions for your thesis: one main question, and several sub-questions. The wording of both types of questions is rather specific. What should you pay attention to in order to formulate your questions well? We will answer that question for you.

Research questions: main question and sub-questions

Your main question is - not surprisingly - the most important question that you hope to answer with your thesis research. A thesis topic is often quite broad; with the main question, you specify exactly what you are going to research. The main question is usually  placed at the end of your introduction or theoretical framework.

Suppose your thesis topic is 'the influence of smoking on health'. That's a pretty broad topic.

By 'health' you can mean anything (lung health, BMI, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).

It is also not clear which population you will investigate. Do you include people all over the world, or only Dutch citizens? Do you research all age groups? Do you only look at chain smokers, or also at people who smoke less?

You specify all of these kinds of details in a research question.

Because the main question is often still somewhat complex, you also come up with several sub-questions. With the help of the answers to those sub-questions, you can eventually answer the main question. Each sub-question must in some way contribute to answering the main question.


Different types of research questions

The type of research question you pick determines the research method you choose. For example, with an explanatory question ('Why…') you will more likely see experimental research methods. If your question is more descriptive ('What conditions must… meet?'), you will probably conduct literature research, surveys, or interviews.

Formulating the main question

Formulating your main question requires some attention. This question must meet several requirements. The following is especially important:

  • formulate SMART research questions(both the main and sub-questions). This means that your questions are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
  • The main question is derived from your problem statement. The elements from your problem statement are therefore reflected in it.
  • The main question is only one question (i.e. not: 'What influence does smoking have on the lung capacity of chain smokers after ten years and what do the chain smokers think of this?').
  • Make it as clear as possible. For each word in your main question, check whether it could be more concise. For example, it is better to change 'at this moment' to 'in 2022' or to 'during period X'.
  • Your research question is an open question and cannot be answered with 'yes' or 'no'.
  • Make your question objective. Don't use words that suggest an opinion.

Examples of a research question

The main question can take several forms. Below are a few examples of research questions.


Descriptive question

What is the protocol against bullying in secondary schools with a pre-university education department in Gelderland in the 2021-2022 school year?


Comparative question

What are the differences in lung capacity between the lungs of fifty-year-old Dutch men who smoke one pack a day and fifty-year-old Dutch men who do not smoke?


Testing question

To what extent are first-year students of Language Studies satisfied with the lecturers in the literature studies at the University of Amsterdam?


Problem-solving question

How can RIVM make overweight Dutch patients with type 2 diabetes in the 35-55 age group more aware of the importance of losing weight?


Evaluative question

To what extent do employees at the CoolBlue office in Amsterdam value office plants in their work environment?

Doubts about how to answer your research questions?

Are you wondering whether you have answered your research questions correctly? No worries! If you have your thesis checked by the editors of AthenaCheck, you can request a common thread check. The editors will then check this for you.