Chapter 2 Where to Start?

Working on a research project can be frightening. The papers that we read at school are sophisticated, have sound theories that support the empirics, the data is rich, and the model seems solid. When we read papers that attract our attention, it seems as if all the good questions have been asked. Finding a research question seems like an overwhelming task.

In general, the quality of a research project is a function of the quality reached at different stages of the process. In my view, the following are the most crucial stages of a research project.

  1. Formulating a good research question
  2. Finding appropriate data for the project
  3. Using a sound theoretical model
  4. Designing a clear empirical approach
  5. Writing with clarity

Paying close attention to the tasks and details that each stage requires will allow us to reach high quality in the final product. This may seem daunting at first, but having a clear structure of the tasks we need to complete will make the process much more enjoyable.

The most important element, in my opinion, is to realize what we are trying to accomplish with a research project. You may be interested in passing a class, and therefore you need to complete a research project. But, beyond that, the main objective of any research project is to understand one small area in our world a little bit better. That must serve as a motivator.

In social sciences we use the scientific method to attain this goal:

  1. We start with a general theory: x causes y
  2. We develop a hypothesis around this theory: An increase in x will lead to an increase in y
  3. We then collect data that will help us test this hypothesis
  4. We analyze the data and the results.
  5. We accept or do not accept our hypothesis.
  6. If pertinent, we expand the theory to different issues.

We will now analyze how to start thinking about a research question that can help us understand the world a little bit more and that follows the scientific method.