16 words or less
This may sound completely obvious, but before you undertake any research you should be able to state a single, clear research question that will add to our current knowledge. I challenge our postgrads to state their research question in 16 words or less. A question should begin with a W (who, what, why, when and how – and yes, I know that 'how' doesn't begin with a w…). And it should end with a question mark.
This is surprisingly hard to do. I ask people to imagine that someone without a background in research has asked them what they are studying. They want to impress this person with how cool and relevant their research is (I try to suggest that there is a potential romantic interest here). So how do you describe your research question in clear simple terms?
If you can state the research question clearly, in simple language, in one sentence, you will be able to work out what data are needed to answer the question, and to identify a suitable study methodology to gather these data.
But without that initial step in place there is no way of deciding on an appropriate study methodology.
It's worth spending time trying to phrase the question exactly right. It is the single most important step in your research. When you come up with the exact question you want to ask, make that the title of your research project.
Things that are not research questions
Remember that a research question is a question. I'm interested in patient litigation is not a question, nor is We have data on 120 patients on our deliberate self harm register or I'm planning to do an analysis of patient outcomes using the TILDA dataset.
Write the introduction section to your paper before you finalise the methodology. This should have three sections: what we already know, what we don't know, and what you decided to do. If these are clear in your head – and properly referenced – all is well.