Developing Research Questions Worth Answering

A candidate should think about his or her Dissertation as a significant topic that is worthy of exploration; this means that the question is important and the answer will influence how people think about or practice learning and leadership.

A research question is one for which:

  • An answer is important (i.e., the answer makes a significant contribution to the field)

  • The answer is not known or needs further verification (i.e., the proposed study is the next logical step in the research on the topic)

  • The answer can be found through research (i.e., the answer is a matter of evidence, not of opinion or values)

  • The candidate has the resources of energy, time, and money to address the proposed study

Proposing a Non-Traditional Dissertation Model

The majority of doctoral Dissertations follow a traditional model. If a candidate wishes to pursue an alternative Dissertation model (a model other than the traditional five chapters, or a model using unknown or uncommon methodology), s/he must secure written approval from the Dissertation committee and the Program Director/Advisor.

Importance of the Literature Review

Every candidate must possess a strong command of the literature on a topic before s/he can pose a Dissertation topic. Therefore, the first step in posing a question worth answering is thoroughly and systematically reviewing the literature on the topic. All comprehensive reviews of literature have common features including:

  • Focus on a relatively well-delineated topic

  • Exhaustive of the important research on that topic

  • Clear separation of the meaningful from the meaningless

  • Coherent and logical analysis/summary of what is known about the topic and what requires further exploration and clarification

A complete review of the important literature requires electronic searches through databases as well as hand searches through journals, books, and other scholarly materials; it sometimes also requires contacting researchers who are working on similar topics. Researchers must not work in isolation or assume that information is the most accurate or recent simply because it has been published. A good review describes the search methods used to find relevant literature.

A good review separates sound from unsound research; it may ignore or mention studies of little or no merit, but it devotes significant attention to those with the best designs and the most defensible conclusions. A strong review also explains legitimate differences in the findings and/or opinions of researchers. Studies that have undergone rigorous peer review are typically, but not always, more trustworthy than are those that have not.

Good reviews may be organized in a variety of ways. Some are chronological, following the development of an idea over time. Others are topical, bringing together disparate ideas in meaningful ways. All lead the reader through a thicket of information and arrive at conclusions that are logical and supported by reliable evidence. A good review is coherent, evaluative, and forward-looking.   

Research Design and Data Analyses

Readers of the Dissertation should be able to clearly understand how the research design logically follows based upon the question(s) posed.

Both quantitative and qualitative studies can produce findings that are reliable and significant. Quantitative research questions usually test a theory or model (or some part of it) using measurable independent and dependent variables, whereas qualitative questions are typically non-predictive and exploratory and seek to understand a phenomenon.

The research core coursework enables students to differentiate between strong and weak designs, between data analyses that are appropriate and those that are not, and between justifiable and unjustifiable conclusions.

An adequate research design for a Dissertation does the following:

  • describes the question(s) being asked

  • explains why the answer(s) is (are) important

  • explains why this research strategy- informed by the conceptual framework and the literature review - is the best way to answer the question(s)

  • describes how data will be collected and analyzed

  • describes the sample with which the researcher will work, including the approximate number of participants or sources of information, their characteristics and location, and the plan for obtaining access  to them

  • identifies any ethical concerns in applying the methodology

  • demonstrates a defensible way of analyzing and interpreting the data

Dissertation work, like other research of significant time and effort, requires a dispassionate commitment to the results. While the researcher (doctoral candidate) may feel strongly about the topic being researched, the ability to remain impartial, and possibly to reveal surprising results, is a critical aspect of doctoral level research.

Formatting and Bibliography Software

The Dissertation should be prepared according to UTC formatting/APA style guidelines as shown in the Thesis and Dissertation Standards (link: Thesis and Dissertation). Compliance with UTC formatting / style guidelines is the responsibility of the candidate.

Graduate School standards stipulate that all theses and dissertations must use bibliography management software. The Learning and Leadership Program requires all candidates to use EndNote bibliography management software, which the university provides at no charge for all students and faculty. Additionally, the UTC Library faculty support and provide instruction for EndNote software as part of their programming and support of scholarship. A link to the download site for EndNote is available on the Dissertation Resources page (link: Dissertation Resources).