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Want Your Research Questions Approved Fast? | Issue 224

Follow expert guidance on how to--and how not to--write a rock solid research question that will speed you to your doctorate. Need other dissertation advice? It’s in here! (Reading time: 6.5 minutes)

Dear ABD Survival Guide Reader,

Are you wandering about in the dissertation wilderness, anxious for clear signposts to the finish line? You would be well advised to consult a guidebook and map to get on track.

Joanne Broder Sumerson, Ph.D., is a particularly apt guide as she has shepherded countless students to a completed doctorate in her role as a research professor at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia. Her book, Finish Your Dissertation, Don't Let It Finish You!, serves as a trusted, step-by-step travel guide for doctoral researchers in the behavioral and social sciences with its exceptionally clear style and organization.

Some notable and unique sections of the book that you will find particularly helpful in speeding you to your degree include these:

• The "Anatomy of a Dissertation" table—personalize it to create your own outline and timeline

• A template to extract just the "juice" from articles you are reading—avoid overwhelm from "too much information" while getting a jump on your lit review


• How to survive the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process


• Chart on data collection strategies to help you through that maze


• A sample dissertation defense rubric that demystifies what your committee will evaluate at your defense so you can be well prepared


• Ideas for leveraging your dissertation later through presenting, publishing, or consulting


Dr. Broder Sumerson has particularly clear advice for those facing one of the most common early hurdles on the journey, namely, crafting your research question. With permission, we have excerpted her section about how to create a rock solid one that will guide you and get committee approval.


Wishing you beautiful questions and a speedy journey,



Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C.




"There are no right answers to wrong questions." - Ursula K. Le Guin


FEATURE ARTICLE: The Right—and Wrong—Way to Write a Rock Solid Dissertation Research Question

By Joanne Broder Sumerson, Ph.D.
Research Professor, St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia

[Excerpted with permission from Finish Your Dissertation, Don't Let It Finish You!]

The purpose of any research study is to answer the research questions so they must be clear, concise, measurable, and 100% blessed by the Committee.

The research questions need to be on the radar at all times since they drive the entire study. The literature review and methodology are directly linked to the research questions. The literature review includes the theoretical models and empirical data that either support or challenge the variables and how they will be measured. The methodology is created with the leading question: "What is the best way to answer these research questions?"

The research questions serve as the study's solid and sturdy foundation. Similar to a house with a weak foundation, the research questions need to be strong or the study will collapse. You would not want to build a school on top of a base shaped for a house, so every part of the study needs to be directly linked to the research questions.

The five chapters tell the long and drawn-out story about the study. Research questions and hypotheses typically do not appear until the Methodology chapter; therefore, create the research questions first and design the study around answering those questions. The research questions need to be worded clearly and precisely or quality of the study and final write-up will not be clear.

Strong, solid and precise research questions are—

  • Written concisely with as few words as possible.

  • Clear so that the readers know what the data attempt to answer.

  • Open-ended and rich, beginning with what or how and written so that they lead to unguided responses, even with quantitative data. Closed-ended questions that start with do or is can be answered by yes/no, are limited, and lack rigor. 

  • Nonbiased and nondirectional; save your opinion for the hypothesis.

  • Contains words such as influence, contribute, impact, relate, and compare.

  • Avoid words such as cause, effect, or any presumptuous words (this is one of the understood rules in psychology). People are not predictable like machines.

  • Created for each variable. 

  • Directly linked to the statistics used for the data analysis in order to answer the research question. . . . Write simple questions if you plan to use simple statistics; the more complex the question the harder the statistic.

  • 100% blessed by each committee member.

Following are examples of strong research question stems as well as bad and good research questions. Remember that when more variables are added, a higher-level statistic will need to be applied for the analyses. These questions will be simple for the sake of the example.

Examples of Strong Research Question Stems

  • How does _____ influence _____?

  • What is the relationship between ____ and _____?

  • How does _____ compare to _____ in _____?

  • What are the trends in _____ since _____?

Examples of Bad Research Questions

  • How does Facebook impact relationships?

  • Which alcohol treatment group (full intervention, partial intervention, no intervention) is the best?

  • Do pets help with depression?

  • What happens when you mix personality, motivation, learning strategies, and the SAT with grades?

  • Do Millennials post more often on Facebook and Twitter than Baby Boomers?

Examples of Good Research Questions

  • How does the number of Facebook postings per day impact relationship fidelity rate?

  • How do the alcohol treatment groups (full intervention, partial intervention, no intervention) compare in their sobriety rates?

  • What is the relationship between pet ownership (pet owners and non-pet owners) and depression levels?

  • How do personality traits, motivation levels, the use of learning strategies, and SAT score relate to academic achievement as measured by GPA?

  • How do generation groups compare in the number of Facebook and Twitter posts per day?


Good research questions clearly and specifically tell us what we want to know. They will keep us focused as we conduct our study, do the research, and write the five chapters.

Joanne Broder Sumerson, Ph.D., is an affiliate research professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, a seasoned researcher, program evaluator, thesis advisor, consultant, and past Research Review Committee Chair. She has created the Psychology Today blog Research Notes and cofounded the new APA journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture, featuring empirically based articles on how popular culture and general media influence individual, group, and system behavior. Dr. Broder Sumerson is very passionate and committed to bridging the gap between research and practice and serves as a consultant to a variety of public and private organizations.




An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resource

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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