Training our PhD students to ask questions

This afternoon I give an annual lecture about what a PhD is. It is designed as part of the orientation for new PhD students and as a time for reflection to those already well established in their studies. It’s interesting for me to think about this talk after my post last week about how few of the papers I read or hear presented advance my understanding of a particular area.  Another way of looking at this is to comment on the number of papers and particularly conference presentations I see which don’t, to me, appear to contain a clearly formulated or insightful research question. Clearly if your research isn’t driven by a clear question then it is extremely unlikely that it is going to deliver a clear answer.

As research progresses, the fields within which we all function get more specialised and complex. Most of the obvious, simple questions have already been asked. This leads to a large choice of less obvious, derivative questions. Not only does productive research need to ask a relevant and interesting question but it needs to ask one that has the potential to be answered by the techniques that are available. As science progresses there are more and more techniques to choose from and more skill required in selecting the correct one (as in Kat Steels’ prize winning paper at ESMAC). In summary it would be quite reasonable to state that the principle skill that a research leader needs in the modern environment is the ability to think up well-formulated, interesting and answerable research questions

A PhD is many things but amongst these it serves as an entry level qualification for our future research leaders. The process  has changed markedly since I obtained mine (awarded almost exactly twenty years ago). I was chatting about this the other day with a colleague who was remembering completing hers with an absolute minimum of supervision. She commented on how this equipped her with a degree of self-sufficiency and independence that the current system doesn’t always deliver. I shared that experience, and on the one hand agree that it nurtured (inflicted?) independence. On the other, it meant that there are whole areas that I now consider essential for a PhD student to master that I didn’t even touch. No-one ever suggested I should have a systematic approach to searching the literature (at that time there wasn’t a great deal of literature to search). I don’t remember any consideration of the ethics of my research despite the fact that I was modifying external fixation frames that were being applied to patients in the local fracture clinic. There is no statistical analysis anywhere in my thesis. None of it ever got published. Perhaps most importantly of all, given the focus of this post, there is no formal statement of a specific research question. I’m glad that the 30 year old me didn’t have the 50 year old me as a PhD examiner, because I would have failed.

Given the complexity of research in the modern world, I don’t think we have any choice but to have highly structured PhD programmes. There simply isn’t time to allow students to do their own thing anymore. But there is a danger that, in cramming a PhD syllabus full of all the detail of how to systematically review, apply for ethics, master complex measurement techniques, perform rigorous statistical analyses and submit papers, we lose focus on the core research skill of asking a relevant,  insightful and answerable question.

This can be exacerbated by many PhD studentships these days being offered on the basis of funding to conduct a particular project. In these the research question may have been decided before the student even arrives. Sometimes only a general area has been identified, but even then supervisors will often have very strong views about the direction that research should take. I must admit to being guilty of this myself. If I’ve worked hard to get money to support a PhD studentship or am investing my time in supervision, I want to be certain that the resulting research answers the questions that I’m interested in rather than dreaming up their own.

And then of course there are pressures from the system. Universities in the UK are now judged, in part, by how many PhD students complete within the equivalent of 4 years full time study. To ensure this my own University asks the student to submit a Learning Agreement within 3 months, an Interim Assessment within one year and an Internal Evaluation including substantial drafts of thesis chapters before the end of the second year. The pressure is for them to hit the deck running. By far the easiest way to ensure this is to tell students what their research question is and let them to get on with it.

The one thing that is perhaps helping is the drift away from the classic PhD, which reported one large study, to the modern standard which reports several smaller ones. On this model the student gets the opportunity to design a number of studies. Each one will give practice in formulating a relevant, insightful and answerable research question. I wish students who are facing this challenge well and look forward to hearing them present their answers at the future conferences I attend.



  1. Hi Richard
    I like your current blog. We had an interesting visitor from McMaster’s Biostats school who said that it remains important for students to conceptualise their own questions (although it is part of a bigger, existing project) as they aim to train thinking and problem solving skills. I agree that future researchers must have the ability to come up with topical and interesting questions . The question is, if we don’t give them the opportunity do so during their PhD candidature, are we depriving them of the opportunity to acquire this critical skill required to become research leaders?

  2. Richard…you may want to read the Jan 2014 Lancet issue dedicated to Research Waste (with reference to last week’s blog) if you have not yet seen it.

    1. Thanks Quin I had missed out on this.

      Just in case anyone wants to follow this up you can go to to see the articles that Quin has commented upon. They are qutie detailed but make fascinating reading. Note that the articles are freely available but you do have to register (free also) with the Lancet before you can see the full versions.

      Many of them refer to a classic article of 20 years ago by Doug Altam which you can read at . In which he argues that what “we” need is “less research, better research and research done for the right reasons”.

  3. Good day! I ccould have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after looking at some oof the
    posts I ralized it’s neww to me. Anyways, I’m definitely delighted I discovered it and
    I’ll be book-marking it and checking bacck often!

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