Creating a Good Research Question

Successful translation of research begins with a strong question. How do you get started? How do good research questions evolve? And where do you find inspiration to generate good questions in the first place?  It’s helpful to understand existing frameworks, guidelines, and standards, as well as hear from researchers who utilize these strategies in their own work.

In the fall and winter of 2020, Naomi Fisher, MD, conducted 10 interviews with clinical and translational researchers at Harvard University and affiliated academic healthcare centers, with the purpose of capturing their experiences developing good research questions. The researchers featured in this project represent various specialties, drawn from every stage of their careers. Below you will find clips from their interviews and additional resources that highlight how to get started, as well as helpful frameworks and factors to consider. Additionally, visit the Advice & Growth section to hear candid advice and explore the Process in Practice section to hear how researchers have applied these recommendations to their published research.

Meet the Interviewer
Meet the Researchers
  • Christopher Gibbons, MD, is associate professor of neurology at HMS, and clinical staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Joslin Diabetes Center. Gibbons’ research focus is on peripheral and autonomic neuropathies.
  • Clare Tempany-Afdhal, MD, is professor of radiology at HMS and the Ferenc Jolesz Chair of Research, Radiology at BWH. Her major areas of research are MR imaging of the pelvis and image- guided therapy.
  • David Sykes, MD, PhD, is assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), he is also principal investigator at the Sykes Lab at MGH. His special interest area is rare hematologic conditions.
  • Elliot Israel, MD, is professor of medicine at HMS, director of the Respiratory Therapy Department, the director of clinical research in the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medical Division and associate physician at BWH. Israel’s research interests include therapeutic interventions to alter asthmatic airway hyperactivity and the role of arachidonic acid metabolites in airway narrowing.
  • Jonathan Williams, MD, MMSc, is assistant professor of medicine at HMS, and associate physician at BWH. He focuses on endocrinology, specifically unravelling the intricate relationship between genetics and environment with respect to susceptibility to cardiometabolic disease.
  • Junichi Tokuda, PhD, is associate professor of radiology at HMS, and is a research scientist at the Department of Radiology, BWH. Tokuda is particularly interested in technologies to support image-guided “closed-loop” interventions. He also serves as a principal investigator leading several projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and industry.
  • Osama Rahma, MD, is assistant professor of medicine at HMS and clinical staff member in medical oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI). Rhama is currently a principal investigator at the Center for Immuno-Oncology and Gastroenterology Cancer Center at DFCI. His research focus is on drug development of combinational immune therapeutics.
  • Sharmila Dorbala, MD, MPH, is professor of radiology at HMS and clinical staff at BWH in cardiovascular medicine and radiology. She is also the president of the American Society of Nuclear Medicine. Dorbala’s specialty is using nuclear medicine for cardiovascular discoveries.
  • Subha Ramani, PhD, MBBS, MMed, is associate professor of medicine at HMS, as well as associate physician in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at BWH. Ramani’s scholarly interests focus on innovative approaches to teaching, learning and assessment of clinical trainees, faculty development in teaching, and qualitative research methods in medical education.
  • Ursula Kaiser, MD, is professor at HMS and chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension, and senior physician at BWH. Kaiser’s research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms by which pulsatile gonadotropin-releasing hormone regulates the expression of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone genes.

Insights on Creating a Good Research Question

 

Headshot of Tokuda
Junichi Tokuda, PhD, focuses on how to start successfully, and divulges the unique approach he has as a basic scientist when developing a good research question.

Play Junichi Tokuda video

 

 

Headshot of Kaiser
Ursula Kaiser, MD, encourages drawing on an already established interest in your subject matter to showcase clinical background and expertise.

Play Ursula Kaiser video


Start Successfully: Build the Foundation of a Good Research Question

Headshot of WilliamsJonathan Williams, MD, MMSc, emphasizes the value of trust and leaning on mentors when embarking on a new project. Play Jonathan Williams video

Headshot of Chris GibbonsChris Gibbons, MD, addresses his first step inquiring, “Has this been done before?”
Play Chris Gibbons video

Headshot of Osama RhamaOsama Rahma, MD, explains how conviction is key when considering a topic. Play Osama Rahma video

Headshot of Clare TempanyClare Tempany-Afdhal, MD, recommends harnessing inner strengths and interests, and using them wisely. Play Clare Tempany-Afdhal video

Start Successfully Resources

For additional background on where to find inspiration and identifying clinical need, explore the resources below:

Ideation in Device Development: Finding Clinical Need Josh Tolkoff, MS
A lecture explaining the critical importance of identifying a compelling clinical need before embarking on a research project. Play Ideation in Device Development video.

Radical Innovation Jeff Karp, PhD
This ThinkResearch podcast episode focuses on one researcher’s approach using radical simplicity to break down big problems and questions. Play Radical Innovation.

Using Healthcare Data: How can Researchers Come up with Interesting Questions? Anupam Jena, MD, PhD
Another ThinkResearch podcast episode addresses how to discover good research questions by using a backward design approach which involves analyzing big data and allowing the research question to unfold from findings. Play Using Healthcare Data.


Important Factors: Consider Feasibility and Novelty

 

Headshot of Sharmila DorbalaSharmila Dorbala, MD, MPH, talks about how the questions become “a research umbrella.”
Play Sharmila Dorbala video

Headshot of David SykesDavid Sykes, MD, PhD, describes why feasibility, impact, and commitment are all crucial.
Play David Sykes video

Headshot of Subha RamaniSubha Ramani, PhD, MBBS, MMed, explains why it’s important to consider stakeholders.
Play Subha Ramani video


Refining Your Research Question 

 

Headshot of Clare Tempany
Clare Tempany-Afdhal, MD, highlights how finding your niche subject matter can catapult your research career.

Play video of Clare Tempany-Afdhal

 

 

 

Headshot of Elliot Israel
Elliot Israel, MD, explains the importance of embracing the resources and networks close by to elevate your project.

Play Elliott Israel video


Frameworks and Structure: Evaluate Research Questions Using Tools and Techniques

 

Headshot of KaiserUrsula Kaiser, MD, encourages finding the right checklist and accruing expertise when evaluating your question. Play video of Ursula Kaiser

Headshot of WilliamsJonathan Williams, MD, MMSc, breaks down the FINER technique. Play video of Jonathan Williams

Headshot of Subha RamaniSubha Ramani, PhD, MBBS, MMed, shares her unique approach picking methodology based on her curiosity and comfort level. Play video of Subha Ramani

Frameworks and Structure Resources

Looking for a deeper dive into the concepts and frameworks described by our researchers? Explore these resources and courses:

Designing Clinical Research Hulley et al.
A comprehensive and practical guide to clinical research, including the FINER framework for evaluating research questions. Review clinical research guide [PDF]

Translational Medicine Library Guide Queens University Library
An introduction to popular frameworks for research questions, including FINER and PICO. Review translational medicine guide.

Asking a Good T3/T4 Question Niteesh K. Choudhry, MD, PhD
This video explains the PICO framework in practice as participants in a workshop propose research questions that compare interventions. Play Asking a Good T3/T4 Question video

Introduction to Designing & Conducting Mixed Methods Research
An online course that provides a deeper dive into mixed methods’ research questions and methodologies. Learn more about the course


Network and Support: Find the Collaborators and Stakeholders to Help Evaluate Research Questions

 

Headshot of Chris GibbonsChris Gibbons, MD, values brainstorming sessions as early in the process as possible to help identify blind spots. Play video of Chris Gibbons

Headshot of David SykesDavid Sykes, MD, PhD, welcomes patient advocates when considering a good research question.
Play video of David Sykes

Headshot of Osama RhamaOsama Rahma, MD, talks about the surprising importance of leaning on competitors.
Play video of Osama Rahma

Network & Support Resource

See below for resource:

Bench-to-bedside, Bedside-to-bench Christopher Gibbons, MD
In this lecture, Gibbons shares his experience of bringing research from bench to bedside, and from bedside to bench. His talk highlights the formation and evolution of research questions based on clinical need. Play Bench-to-bedside.