How to Come Up with a Qualitative Research Topic That Brings You Light and Joy

This week’s guest blogpost is from Tairan Qiu. Tairan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia. To view the screencast, click here. You can read the full transcript below…


Hi everyone, my name is Tairan Qiu and my pronouns are she/her/她. I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of Georgia. Welcome to my qualitative concept mini-lesson focusing on coming up with a topic for qualitative research that brings you light and joy. One quick note before we start, closed caption can be accessed by clicking the CC button on the bottom right of this video. We have a very packed agenda today. In our mini-lesson today, first, we’ll discuss how your ecology and onto-epistemologies shape your research purpose. Then, you’ll actually think about what your research purpose is and come up with a draft for your research question. In the end, I’ll share some reminders and lessons that I learned throughout my experiences of doing qualitative research thus far. Here are the learning objectives for today. Let’s get started!

Learning Objectives:

  • Through hands-on activities, students will be able to know and use some strategies for coming up with a research topic.
  • Students will be able to connect their own passion and knowledge in educational issues to their potential research topics and questions.
  • Students will be able to formulate a draft of a research question based on their ideas for a research topic and their research purpose.

Ecology, Onto-Epistemologies, and Positionality Narrative

Before we dive into the first activity, I would like to share an example of how my own ecology and onto-epistemologies shape my research design. As you may have noticed, the theme of the slides is very nature and ecology oriented. I did this very intentionally because I want you to think about your own ecology as we go through this mini-lesson. Your ecology really shapes your understandings of the dire issues in your field of study (Lee, 2017; Paris & Winn, 2013). When you reflect on your ecology, you reflect on what makes you who you are today. I also challenge you to think about questions like: What nourishes you? What keeps you alive and gives you joy? All of these things are a part of your ecology and I hope through the activities that we’ll do later, you’ll really think about these questions and think about what are the important parts of your own ecology. In terms of onto-epistemology, ontology is a branch of philosophy that studies concepts such as existence, being, becoming, and reality, and epistemology is the study of knowledge (Bhattacharya, 2017; Prasad, 2017). So, really, when thinking about onto-epistemology, we’re thinking about How are we existing in this world and how do we know what we know? So, in my positionality narrative that I’m sharing with you right now, I answer the questions that I mentioned and I also articulate my research purposes. Here is the link to my positionality narrative: You can also access the document through the QR code on the slide. Please take some time to read this on your own.

(Re)considering Research Purpose

So, that was my positionality narrative that really answers the central question: What is my ecology? and What are the onto-epistemologies that shape not only my research design and my theoretical framework, but also my stance and mission in the research that I do? So, thinking about the example I gave you and the questions that I posed, I want you all to reflect on your own ecology and onto-epistemologies to think about your research purpose. On a piece of paper, please answer these questions:

  • What is important to me?
  • What is important to the people in my community?
  • What is important to the bigger context?
  • What is important to the system and institution?
  • What is important to the world?

After thinking about what is of importance to you in educational research or your field of study, answer the next two questions:

  • How do my answers to the above questions shape my research purpose?
  • Why do I do this research and the work (depending on how you define “the work”)?

These questions will also help you think about the purpose and significance of your research, which are things you need to articulate as you write about your research further down the road. So, take 10 to 15 minutes, pause this video, and jot down your initial answers to these questions.

All right, hopefully you spent a fruitful 10 to 15 minutes reflecting on your ecology and onto-epistemology, and doing the research and work that you do. Now, let’s share your responses. You can put it in the comments in the video or the comments on QualPage. Or, you can share with whoever is watching this video with you.

Crafting and Revising Research Questions

Now that you’ve reflected on your ecology and onto-epistemologies and hopefully you have some thoughts about your research purpose, like why are you doing this work that you’re doing and what shapes the “why,” now we’re going to think about your research topic in more specific and concrete ways. The way I do this is through writing research questions. Please keep in mind that these research questions don’t have to be your final research questions. Qualitative research is an iterative process and we need to let the research process guide us as researchers. The research questions you’re writing right now could be a running draft of just your thinking, but it’s important to have a draft for your research questions before you dive into the theoretical framework, literature review, and methodology, and all those nitty-gritty things of qualitative research.

Okay, now, let’s talk about the components of a research question. But before we do that, I would like to share my research questions with you. In my dissertation study, I asked two questions. Specifically, I wanted to examine two things. I looked at what are the transnational literacy practices of a China-U.S. transnational youth, Meiyi. Then, after knowing the what, I wanted to know the how. So I asked, how does Meiyi navigate these literacy practices and her translingual and multiliterate life across different contexts. So, in both questions, I really have the who—one China-U.S. transnational youth. And then I had the what, it’s the transnational literacy practices and navigating her translingual and multiliterate life. I also had the where, right—across contexts and across multiple countries. So, these are the very basic components of a research question: the who, what, and where. This information really gives you and the readers of your research the context of your research. As such, when you write your research questions, when you’re brainstorming, write down the who, what, and where. And then the when and how can be optional, but they’re also very important components depending on what you really want to study. For example, if you’re doing research about the effect of students quarantining at home and online learning on their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, then the when is very important, right? So, that’s when you have to include the time frame of your research in your research question. And then if your methodology is of importance to your research, then you have to include the how in your research question. For example, if you’re doing narrative inquiry then narratives are probably very central to your research process (Kim, 2015). Hence, in your research questions, you would probably have to include narratives or story-telling, right? Another example is if you’re doing arts-based approaches such as poetic inquiry then you would probably have to include some aspects of poetry or arts-based methodology or methods in your research question. And then, if you’re using critical counter-storytelling (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002) as your methodology, then you would definitely include counter-storytelling in your research question. Overall, the when and how is optional but if they’re of importance to your work, then you have to include them in your research questions. Alright, why don’t you pause this video for another 10 minutes to brainstorm the who, what, where, when, how, and write down a draft of your research question or research questions. But be cautious not to write too many, right, because we want the research questions to be practical and doable within a certain limited time frame. I’ll see you in 10 to 15 minutes!

All right, welcome back! I hope you had a fun time drafting your research questions. So now, I want you to engage in some peer or self-conferencing. You can either do this yourself or if you have a friend who’s watching this video with you or if you have a peer who’s also trying to figure out a topic for their research, you can do conferencing for each other and workshop your research question. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to bounce our ideas off of each other with our peers or people who are in our academic community. While you’re doing the conferencing, I really want you to think about these questions:

  • Is the research question specific but open-ended for possibilities for answers? So, if you wrote down something like, do 7th graders like doing homework when they go home? Something like that. Then the answer to that question is “yes” or “no” right? So that’s not very open-ended. So, really wordsmith your research question so it’s open-ended and it’s open to possibilities of different answers.
  • Something else to think about is: Is the research question practical and could it be answered through one project within a certain time frame? If you ask a question like, what are the impacts of race in teacher preparation programs, then, that could be your whole career, right? You can use your whole career to answer that question. So really think about your research question and think about how practical it is and could it be answered within a certain time frame of one study.
  • Next, think if the research question could be answered using research traditions in qualitative research. So, this question is really for you to reflect on your choice of methodology. Like, does your question need to be answered through a survey or do you need numbers or a large number of participants to answer your question? If so, then it’s probably not a very good research question for qualitative research. So really think about the potential methods and methodologies that you’re going to use to answer your research questions and think if your research questions match research traditions in qualitative methodology.
  • Lastly, think if there are any terms that the researchers need to operationally define in their work. You know, we have different understandings of different terms in our respective fields. So, we shouldn’t assume that everyone knows what the words we use mean, or that there are universal definitions of these terms we use. When you’re looking at your research question, really think, “Okay, do I need to define this for my readers so I’m crystal clear and they know what I’m talking about.” If you answer is “yes,” then definitely operationally define the words that you’re using. For example, in my research questions, specific terms that I need to define in my theoretical frameworks or methodology sections are transnational literacy practices and also transnational youth. You know, people can assume the meanings of these terms but I want them to understand my operational definitions of these things because my understandings of transnational literacy practices are informed by theories of multiliteracies and translanguaging. This conceptualization is specific to my understandings of my theoretical frameworks and my ecology and onto-epistemology, so, these are the terms that I need to operationally define in my writing and when I articulate my research. So, for this last conferencing question, thinking about your research questions, write down the terms that you need to define for your readers, so they know exactly what you’re talking about in your research questions and in your writing.

Alright, let’s take some time and do some peer or self-conferencing to workshop your research questions.

Conclusion and Reminders

All right, welcome back again! So hopefully you had a fruitful time with me in this mini-lesson about coming up with a research topic for your qualitative research project that brings you joy. In this presentation, I talked about some strategies that you could use for thinking about and reflecting on your own ecology and onto-epistemologies, coming up with your research purpose, and also starting a draft of your research questions. Before I let you go, I want to share some reminders or some takeaways that I have through my experiences of doing qualitative research during my doctoral program.

The first thing is, when composing your research questions, be specific and practical. You know, the conversations with a peer reviewer or even with yourself, using those questions that I provided is really important. It helps you hone in on the specificity and practicality of your research questions. To me, my thinking flourishes in specificity.

Next, be reflexive and flexible in your research process. Keep a researcher memo because throughout the research process, you’re gonna learn a lot of new things, either about your research partners (Toliver, 2020), your context, or your research methods. Or even you’re going to gain understandings of your theoretical framework or the literature that you’ve read or are reading. So really, be willing to be flexible, keep an open mind, and always reflect on your methods of inquiry, your interactions with your research partners, and your growing understandings of your work. As such, keeping a researcher memo is central in your research process.

Next, be willing to revise your research questions and unlearn, right? We were always taught that before we go into the field, we have to know everything—all the literature, all the theoretical frameworks, all the methods—but that’s not true. Our research question is a temporary guide for us to walk into the work with our research partners that we converse with. Also, we can’t freeze ourselves in time, right? As we learn and engage in reflectivity and reflexivity, we have to be willing to revise our research questions when necessary and be willing to learn and unlearn about our research partners or the context they’re in and the work that we do. So, be in constant conversation with your research partners, because in qualitative research, the people you work with, they are the experts about their lives and they’re the experts about their experiences. So, really be a humble listener and listen to their experiences and be willing to revise what you think you already know.

Next, don’t try to be trendy. Choose a topic that gives you passion and light—I can’t emphasize this enough. You know, I see people jump on the bandwagon and use words such as diversity, equity, and inclusion in their research. Or, they think topics like the pandemic in educational research is trendy, but does that really give them passion and joy? I don’t really know. So, really choose a topic that gives you passion, light, and joy, and don’t try to be trendy. The reason we do our work and the purpose we do our research is not to be trendy. It’s to actually make changes in the areas and spaces that we think are important in educational research.

Lastly, before we part ways, I want to share two questions that I am constantly thinking about as I work with my transnational research partners and design new projects: Who are you in relation with and who are you answerable to? (Patel, 2015; Tuck & Yang, 2012). I challenge you to really dive deep into these questions and have them at the back of your mind and the font of your mind as you come up with your research topic and as you progress through your research process.

Thank you for listening to me and if you have any questions, please contact me. Good luck on coming up with a topic for your research!


Bhattacharya, K. (2017). Fundamentals of qualitative research: A practical guide. Taylor & Francis.

Kim, J. H. (2015). Understanding narrative inquiry: The crafting and analysis of stories as research. Sage Publications.

Lee, C. D. (2017). An ecological framework for enacting culturally sustaining pedagogy. In D. Paris & H. S. Alim (Eds.), Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world (pp. 261-273). Teachers College Press.

Paris, D., & Winn, M. T. (Eds.). (2013). Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. SAGE Publications

Patel, L. (2015). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge.

Prasad, P. (2017). Crafting qualitative research: Beyond positivist traditions. Routledge.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative Inquiry8(1), 23-44.

Toliver, S.R. (2020). Can I get a witness? Speculative fiction as testimony and counterstory. Journal of Literacy Research, 1-23.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society1(1).

One thought on “How to Come Up with a Qualitative Research Topic That Brings You Light and Joy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s