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Physician Associates research project guidance: Getting started and identifying your research question

Resources and links to guide you through your research project.

Getting started with research for your critical review

It is always a little daunting to start a larger research project, but a good place to start is to ask yourself:

  • Why is my topic interesting and worth investigating?
  • What do I need to find out about my topic?
  • Where can I find this information out – what sources do I need to look at?

For more on this see the short video tutorial on starting research for your project.

If you are unable to view this video on YouTube it is also available on YuJa - view the Starting research for your dissertation video on YuJa (University username and password required)

Identifying your research question

As you read more, you will hopefully start to identify more specific areas or angles within your topic that are interesting and that you want to follow up; one of these may turn into your eventual research question.

Finding a research question may take some trial and error, so don’t panic if you don’t hit on the question straight away. Take some time to read and explore.

A top tip for finding a research question is to ask yourself questions about what you have found out. The kinds of questions to ask yourself, once you have done some initial reading, may include:

  • What has been found out already about my topic?
  • What is left to find out / where is more research needed?
  • What do researchers agree about in relation to my topic?
  • What do researchers disagree about in relation to my topic?
  • What methods do people use to investigate my topic?
  • What methods are more favoured, and why?
  • Can the methods or process be applied to another related area? (e.g. another similar enzyme / gene etc)
  • Where are the barriers to progress or challenges in my topic? Why?

For more on this watch this short video tutorial on defining a research question:

If you are unable to view this video on YouTube it is also available on YuJa - view the Defining a research question video on YuJa (University username and password required)

There is also a section on going from a topic to a research question in the following study guide:

Creating a structured approach

Light bulb in a thought bubbleOnce you have decided on a topic for your review you need to spend some time planning and defining the scope of your study. Think about...

  • background
  • research question and aims
  • criteria for inclusion and exclusion
  • methods including:
    • search strategy
    • selecting studies for inclusion
    • quality assessment
    • data extraction & analysis
    • synthesis of results
    • dissemination
  • time frame.

You may wish to do some scoping searches of relevant databases to find out how much has been written, and what limits you should apply.

PICO framework for structuring your research

It may be beneficial to use the PICO framework to help your research and ensure you have clear parameters for your search. It is not essential to use this framework.

  • Population
    This could be the general population, or a specific group defined by: age (e.g. infants, children, adolescents, elderly); socioeconomic status (e.g. low-income, homeless); risk status; location (rural or urban)
  • Intervention
    Refers to the therapy, test, strategy to be investigated (e.g. drug, behavioural change, environmental factors, counselling)
  • Comparator
    A measure you will use to compare results against (e.g. no treatment, alternative treatment/exposure, standard/routine interventions)
  • Outcome
    What outcome is significant to your population or issue? This may be different from the outcome measures used in the studies.
PICO example
Review title The effect of blueberries on cognition and mood: a systematic review of human intervention trials
Population Individuals of all ages, without regard to gender, race or ethnicity. 
Intervention Supplementation with blueberries, relevant blueberry products or extracts from blueberries. This may include freeze-dried blueberries, blueberry concentrate, or blueberry juice.
Comparator Placebo or control groups.
Outcome Changes in cognitive function based on cognitive screening measures (such as Mini mental state examination, Montreal Cognitive Assessment), neuropsychological interview, informant/carer responses to assessment tools or changes in mood. Secondary outcomes include: changes in biochemical levels in biological fluids. Of particular interest are inflammatory markers, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and markers of gastrointestinal health. 

This example is extracted from: PROSPERO 2018 CRD42018100888.

Further information