A typical fellowship application contains many components of varying lengths, yet it’s the shortest component—the research question—that’s the most important. Indeed, one of the most common criticisms of graduate fellowship proposals is that the research question is unclear... it’s vague, diffuse, convoluted, or, worst of all, it’s not specified at all. Without a strong and explicitly-stated research question, a funding proposal never gets off the ground.
So, what constitutes a good research question?
A good research question is clear, relevant, and researchable:
- Clarity means that when reviewers read your question, they immediately understand what you’re asking. They understand it because your question is short, conceptually straightforward, and jargon free. Readers may not yet understand all the fascinating nuances undergirding the question (that’s what you’ll explain later in the proposal), but they understand the question itself.
- Relevance means that your question addresses an identifiable problem, preferably one of interest to researchers in other subfields and, even better, other fields. Think "puzzle" here... your question, if answered, offers to contribute a fascinating piece to a larger puzzle.
- Researchability means that you can reasonably expect to answer your question with the resources at your disposal during the fellowship period. The question is demanding, but not overextended. It's appropriately honed to your particular situation, skills, and resources.
Your question might be followed by a hypothesis—a testable conjecture about what your research will demonstrate. But a hypothesis becomes meaningless outside the context of a clear, relevant, and researchable research question.
The research question is like a crowbar with which you pry open your sources, your data, or your experiments. It takes effort to formulate a powerful one, but the payoff is a strong foundation for a fundable proposal and a feasible project.
Dana N. Johnson is Assistant Director of External Fellowships in the Graduate College, where she enjoys supporting Illinois graduate students as they compete for national and international fellowships and grants. Dana earned a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and continues to follow her research interests in Serbia, migration, and the socioeconomic aspirations of youth. You may see her around town at a lecture on one of these topics, picking through an antique mall, or watching her dog chase squirrels.