Changing the Research Question

I did. No, really, I did. In third year. In fact, as I started writing up. There’s no ‘good time’ to change your research question. There’s no bad time to do it either, except maybe after you’ve written up.

So, you have this moment where you are looking at your ‘thesis’ (whatever stage it’s in) and the only thought going through your head is “it doesn’t work”. We all get to that point. There’s always a stumbling block between having a theoretical idea and making that idea a firm reality in a thesis that other people can read and understand. It’s a huge stumbling block, in some cases, but it’s not insurmountable.

The main point is, if changing your research question makes your thesis better, than do it. Don’t delay! Don’t second-guess. If it’s an improvement then it’s a necessity. If changing the research question is about being unsure if you are asking the right question, though, or has to do with you being bored with your research, then those are other issues and suddenly changing your question is probably a gut-jerk reaction you need to consider for a while.

But if you’ve considered it and you know it’s not the right question: change it. You don’t have to start from scratch. Sometimes changing it just means changing the focus. Maybe you can come at the research another way or from another perspective. Maybe flip the question on its head. There are ways to change the question without changing your research.

I realised after all my fieldwork was done and analysed that I’d been asking the wrong question. Or, really, I’d been asking the less interesting question. So I took what I’d discovered and asked a new question. It still fit the data, but it proved a more interesting hypothesis. This is a great way to change your research question, and might just be the difference between ‘I have tons of data and no idea what to do with it’ and ‘I can now write my thesis’.

I did find that, on doing so, I had to do more research, but that’s okay. You do whatever research you need to in order to be able to back up your work. Sometimes, changing the research question might send you in a new direction for background research, into a field or theory you haven’t looked at before, but may be just the thing you need for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

Because that’s what a thesis is: a puzzle. And without the right research question, it’s like trying to do a puzzle without the finale picture to work from. You try putting together a 1000 pieces with no idea what it’s supposed to be of. But your research question is the fulcrum on which your thesis will swing, and if it’s broken, your thesis won’t swing anywhere, except down. Which is obviously not where you want to be, going into 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. year.

But you cannot just ‘change the question’. What do you change it to? Again, I just came at mine from a different direction. Instead of asking ‘how do these people effect this theory?’ I asked ‘how does this theory effect these people?’ Seems like a simple 180, but it changed everything. And maybe that will work for you.

Talk it over with friends, colleagues, supervisors, family; whoever it is you bounce ideas off. Try to explain what you are thinking in a way that they will understand, and see what they think. If it’s the right way to go for you, you should be able to explain it to someone else (you’ll have to, when you write your thesis). Maybe a 180 is what you need, or maybe a different theory is what would work, or maybe you need an entirely new direction with your field work which you haven’t started yet.

Whatever it is that needs to change, if something is wrong, you need to make that change. Don’t keep going along with a ‘it’ll work out’ attitude, because you might end up doing your PhD for ten years. Changing the question, if that’s what needs to be changed, is best done sooner rather than later. But understand that some people change it very late and that’s okay. Better to do it then, then after you’ve submitted your thesis and your examiners have torn it to pieces. As long as you haven’t submitted yet, it’s never too late to take the steps needed to make your research project what it needs to be for a PhD.