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Step 4a: How To Develop a Good Research Puzzle

Reading is the most important strategy for developing a good research puzzle. Skim a few articles in recent or bound issues of scholarly journals and see what scholars disagree about. "Review articles" in journals that discuss controversies or areas of study are excellent places to start. Look at the footnotes in your reading assignments for classes. Often times the footnotes or endnotes in an article will highlight existing theoretical or historical debates. Who is citing whom? Who always gets mentioned? Find a particular issue, event or process that sparks your interest. Figure out what the important debates are, and what arguments there are on the topic.

Disciplinary differences exist in identifying a good research puzzle. Your research puzzle and subsequent governing questions may be determined by the discipline you're working in. A challenge for interdisciplinary research, as in International Relations, is how to negotiate an acceptable approach with your advisors.

Keeping disciplinary differences in mind, a good research puzzle may arise from:

  1. A historical controversy: Did something happen, or not? And why?

  2. Contemporary policy debates: What is the best way to deal with a problem?

  3. Theoretical debates: Is one side right or are both sides right?

  4. Accepted wisdom: Can you explain it in a better way?

  5. From our own observations and experiences.

Expect to spend almost as much time defining your puzzle and deciding how to handle it (methodologies) as you spend in researching and writing it!

Research Milestones

Things to do this academic year.



Planner Checklist

Track your research progress.



Research Notepad

Keep track of research jottings.