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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 secondsEMMA THOMPSON: For most researchers, the process of coming up with a hypothesis or a title for their research project is one of narrowing down their focus. Many people start by selecting a particular subject. This could be something you're currently studying or may have an interest in studying in the future. The most important thing is that you do have a passion for it. It's this that will carry you through your research project. Once you have your subject, you need to identify a theme within it and within that theme, try to pick a particular context that you can then go on to find a topic from. In my example, I'm obviously interested in politics.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsAnd whilst I've always enjoyed reading political theory, my research interests have naturally lent themselves more closely to issues of political science, which would be my theme. The context I might focus on could be "Political engagement in the UK". Now this is clearly still far too broad to be a topic area. I mean, what exactly do I mean by "Political engagement" and who in the UK am I interested in? Something better might be "Young people's attitudes towards politics within the UK". The next stage is to start to do some exploratory research, have a read of current affairs literature, perhaps some academic papers or books. And as you are reading, start to really narrow down what your interest is.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 secondsWhat questions are still left unanswered? Perhaps something is really fascinating you at the moment that you want to explore. So some examples in this instance might be Are young people apathetic towards politics? Do young people have a voice in politics? Or perhaps should the voting age be lowered? Something topical-- how has Brexit impacted upon young people? These thoughts, these questions are possible final research questions, and it is at this stage that you should try to pick a focus. Could you amalgamate these ideas into one overarching research question? Or perhaps your ideas might be so plentiful and disparate that you just need to pick one and run with it.

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 secondsDuring this thought process, you should also consider whether the research questions are feasible. Does information-- like previous papers, studies of raw data-- exist already to help you answer your favoured research question? Or if not, could you, in the course of your study, create this kind of evidence that will help you answer the question? Give yourself a time limit to do this preliminary research and develop a final research question, making sure that you do have a decision within your time frame. Of course, it's not always the case that research projects are about narrowing down a focus. Some researches begin with a clear idea of the topic already. They already know what they want to explore.

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 secondsBefore beginning your initial reading and developing some research questions, I always think it's worth clarifying a few things by working backwards, broadening out your focus to identify what subject it is that your project actually falls under. Identify the context your topic is within, the theme that it falls under, and then think about the different subject areas which may help you address your topic. So in this example, whilst we can clearly understand that politics is a central subject, we might wish to examine the topic through a different subject lens, perhaps sociology, psychology or even history. Do readings of these subjects help us with a different perspective of our topic?

Skip to 3 minutes and 43 secondsIt is then that you can start doing research within all of these literatures as to what you want to investigate. Come up with those research questions, but also think about the methodology that you want to use. It is as important to research your methodology as it is to research your topic. It could be just as varied. Now if at any stage through this process you decide that you need to change direction or perhaps you need to change the title, the topic or the thing, that's not a problem. And it's not unusual in the early stages of research.

Skip to 4 minutes and 14 secondsThe only thing you need to keep in mind is that you should keep track of any changes you make, and explain in a learning or research log why those changes have occurred. Reflect upon how you changed your mind, what problems came up, and how you addressed them.

Exercise: developing your research question

Coming up with a good research question is a difficult thing. It must be broad enough to give you scope to explore, but narrow enough to be manageable.

In this animation with voiceover Emma illustrates, with practical examples, how you can approach narrowing down your focus if your theme is too broad or broadening out your focus if you have a clear idea of the topic but haven’t necessarily identified which subject(s) it relates to.


After having watched the animation, download a blank version of the template used and have a go at filling it in. Whether you are narrowing down or broadening your focus you should fill in all of the sections. Ultimately you will be using this information as a basis for your draft research proposal.

  • Subject

  • Theme

  • Context

  • Topic

  • Research questions

  • Working research question

Note: Don’t forget to reflect upon the process and capture your thoughts in your learning / research log.

How did you get on? did you need to narrow down or broaden out your focus?

Do share your experience in the comments below. Don’t forget to look at other learners’ comments. If you can relate to a comment someone else has made, why not ‘Like’ it or leave a reply?

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This video is from the free online course:

Developing Your Research Project

University of Southampton

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: