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What makes a good research topic? And: What makes a good research question?

Judith Barton
Judith Barton, Director of Coaching and Mentoring

This week, I will be writing first about what makes a good research topic? The research topic is the general idea or area of interest from which you will be able to develop a more specific research question.

You can identify research topics from any number of sources – your personal experience of coaching and being supervised as a professional coach; your experience of the role and benefits of coaching to individuals or organisations; discussion with colleagues, participation in online forums; attendance at conferences, webinars; reading – professional and/or academic articles, books, websites. You can ‘brainstorm’ with friends and colleagues, with clients and peers to come up with your research topic; researching existing literature to find ‘gaps’ in knowledge or interesting anomalies or contradictions in theory or practice. A combination of sources and techniques may generate more interesting and relevant topics.

One factor which will shape your thinking is the purpose of your research. A project you wish to publish in a professional article (and an add-on to the day job!) will be different from one to for a Master’s degree which will be different again from research which will be written up and examined as a PhD thesis. The purpose will influence both the complexity of your research (theory and methods) and the time and resources available to you for completing the work.

So, let’s look at criteria for deciding if a research topic is worth pursuing.

  1. Are you really interested in the topic?
  2. Why is the topic important (to you and others)?
    1. Does the topic have (actually or potentially) practical usefulness for yourself and others in developing coaching practice?
    2. Will the topic enhance or extend the knowledge-base underpinning coaching?
  3. Do you have the time and resources (skills, finance, access to research subjects or information, access to research expertise)?
  4. Is the topic innovative? Has it been researched and written about many times with little scope for new findings and conclusions?
  5. Is the topic linked to theory – for example, it may be developing new theory about an aspect of coaching; or applying existing theory to a new aspect of coaching

Examples of a research topic might be – coaching as a technique for improving organisational performance; coaching as a management tool in improving employee performance; employee’s perceptions of coaching training.

The next stage in the process is developing a specific research question, based on the topic you have identified. The purpose of this stage is to come to an achievable focus on the topic which is practical for you to complete successfully. This needs to be practical in terms of being answerable through a recognised research design and methods, and practical in terms of your time, resources and expertise. The research question narrows the topic down into an achievable piece of work.

Taking one of the examples above, a broad question would be: How does coaching impact on organisational performance?

This is too broad to be answerable, it leaves open the questions: coaching who? What type of organisation? A more specific question would be: How does executive coaching impact on public sector organisational performance?

This is a better question, but is still broad: what type of public sector organisation? What about location?

How does executive coaching impact on performance of the public education sector in England?

Another approach would be to make a comparison: How does executive coaching impact on performance of the public, private and voluntary education sectors in England?

Depending on your time and resources, further narrowing may be appropriate – for example, not England but ‘a county’; not ‘a county’ but ‘an urban district’ in the county.

On the other hand, a research question can be too narrow – this is one which can be answered by a simple fact or statistic – e.g. how many headteachers in ‘an urban district’ are receiving professional coaching?

When planning your research think through very carefully the research topic, do you have the resources to work with the findings? Start small and grow from there.

The next blog in this series will look at research methods and developing a plan for carrying out your research project.

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