Formulation of research topics

Formulation of research topics

Formulation of research topics


Very often, people may want to have a research topic before formatting a research problem.  Yet by the time of thinking how the topic should be, there are issues that a researcher feels needs attention to be addressed through research.

This means a problem should be at hand in order to have research topic which then leads to objectives and questions.
A research topic therefore could be a theme or idea through which all the issues must be evolving from. The topic may be referred to as title.

If you wish to imagine research as a tree it would look like the diagram below.

Let’s look at figure 1 illustrating preparation for research If you wish to imagine research as a tree it would look like the diagram below.

The process of research should flow with every aspect connected.  

  • Root anchors a tree like research topic all the ideas should identify with the  topics. The middle ideas and activities are the stem of the tree.  
  • The stem connects through branches to leaves and finally fruits. 
  • The branches, leaves and fruits are the area equivalent to the conducting of the  research. 
  • Fruits are research findings these should be the initial fruit planted, meaning information obtained should have a relationship with the topic. 

For instance: ‘A study on knowledge and practice among mothers of neonates at  soba village, Jota district.’ 

Research problems are the concerns or  areas identified by a researcher of a situation which needs solutions/information  discovery.

Research problem. 

A research problem is what the researcher is interested in  finding out or studying. 

It can be defined as a statement about an area of concern, a  condition to be improved, or a difficulty to be eliminated

What are the Sources of a research problem? 
  • Personal interest and experience.
  • Use of intellectual curiosity. One can ask oneself: “How?”  “Why?” and so on. 
  • Using prior research done by other researchers in case there are recommendations given for further studies. 
  • During evaluation of a specific program one can identify a  gap which needs research. 
  • Through direct observation of a current need in your  community. Applied research often arises from specific  needs. 
Examples of research problem: 

A researcher may ask questions like the following: 

  1. What is the cause of the cholera outbreak among people in  Katanga

In this case the researcher is interested in studying or finding out the cause of the cholera outbreak among people in Katanga. 

       2. ∙ Which age group is most affected by malaria in Mulago?  

Here the researcher is interested in studying or finding out  the age group most affected by malaria in Mulago

Note that, it’s important to mention the problem, the population  affected and the study area (location). 

Qualities/ characteristics of a good research problem:

∙ Acronym FINER

  • F: feasible (one that is researchable e.g. in terms of cost, time, respondents, e.t.c) 
  •  I: interesting (interesting enough to overcome the many hurdles & frustrations of the research process) Note; It is wise to confirm that you are not the only one who finds it interesting. 
  • N: Novel (Good research contributes new information) should be one which is not too common or has been already researched on.
  •  E: Ethical (For example the study should not pose physical risks to respondents or invasion of privacy). 
  • R: Relevant or significant to society (consider how your results might advance scientific knowledge and health policy).

 It’s important to note that the above qualities also apply to a research question and research topic as we shall see later.

AcronymDescriptionRelated Examples
FFeasible – The research problem should be researchable in terms of cost, time, respondents, etc.Example: Assessing the feasibility of implementing a new medical intervention in a low-resource healthcare setting.
 IInteresting – The problem should be intriguing enough to overcome the challenges and frustrations of the research process.Example: Investigating the impact of a novel drug on a rare medical condition with limited treatment options.
 NNovel – Good research contributes new information and should not be too common or already extensively researched.Example: Studying the effects of a newly discovered virus on the immune system.
 EEthical – The research should adhere to ethical principles, avoiding physical risks to respondents and invasion of privacy.Example: Ensuring patient confidentiality in a study on sensitive medical conditions.
 RRelevant or significant to society – The results should advance scientific knowledge and have implications for health policy.Example: Investigating the effectiveness of vaccination strategies to control a contagious disease outbreak.

Below are 2 example Research Topics to explain the above Qualities, to help you better understand the FINER acronym.

  1. Research Topic: Exploring the Impact of Nurse Staffing Ratios on Patient Safety in Intensive Care Units

    • Feasible: The study will collect data on nurse staffing levels in different ICUs to assess the relationship between nurse-to-patient ratios and patient safety outcomes.
    • Interesting: The research addresses a critical issue in healthcare, aiming to establish evidence-based guidelines for nurse staffing in ICUs to enhance patient safety.
    • Novel: While nurse staffing has been studied before, this research specifically targets the ICU setting, where patient acuity and complexity are higher.
    • Ethical: The study will protect patient confidentiality and comply with ethical guidelines for conducting research involving human subjects.
    • Relevant: Understanding the impact of nurse staffing ratios on patient safety can inform healthcare policies and practices, ultimately leading to better patient care.
  2. Research Topic: Investigating the Impact of a Nurse-Led Education Program on Diabetes Management in Underserved Communities

    • Feasible: The study will implement a nurse-led diabetes education program in underserved areas and assess its practicality and effectiveness in improving diabetes management.
    • Interesting: The research addresses healthcare disparities in underserved communities and explores the potential of nurse-led interventions in improving chronic disease management.
    • Novel: While diabetes management programs exist, this research specifically targets underserved populations, whose needs are often overlooked.
    • Ethical: The study will prioritize the well-being of participants, ensuring access to quality education and healthcare resources.
    • Relevant: The research outcomes can inform healthcare policies and resource allocation to support underserved communities in managing diabetes effectively.

Steps in the formulation of a research problem

Albert Einstein emphasized that formulating a research problem is often more essential than solving it.

  1. Identify a broad field or subject area of interest to you i.e Problem Identification: Identifying potential research problems by looking for symptoms, consulting experts, performing literature searches, seeking knowledge gaps, and improving existing methodologies.
  2. Dissect the broad area into subareas. 
  3. Select what is of most interest to you i.e Problem Selection: Choosing a specific problem to investigate based on criteria like researcher interest, research significance, resource availability, and feasibility of finding a solution.
  4. Raise research questions. i.e Problem Definition: Clearly defining the research topic, including the overall purpose, motivation, scope, and expected outcomes.
  5. Formulate objectives, 
  6. Assess your objects. 
  7. Double-check (proper explanation of the points is  required).

Example to better understand the steps
 1. Problem Identification:

In this stage, researchers identify the potential research problem of “medication errors in a pediatric hospital setting” through observations, incident reports, and discussions with healthcare professionals. They notice an increase in medication-related incidents, indicating a problem that needs investigation.

2. Problem Selection: After identifying the problem of “medication errors in a pediatric hospital setting,” researchers must decide if this specific problem is worth investigating further. They consider factors like researcher interest, research significance, resource availability, and the likelihood of finding a feasible solution.

Example: Upon careful consideration, the research team finds that medication errors in pediatric care have significant implications for patient safety and quality of care. They also recognize that their hospital has the necessary resources and support to conduct a thorough study. Therefore, they decide to select this problem for further investigation.

3. Problem Definition: With the problem of “medication errors in a pediatric hospital setting” selected for investigation, researchers proceed to define the research topic in more detail. They outline the overall purpose, motivation, scope, and expected outcomes of the study.

Example: The researchers define the research topic as “Understanding the underlying causes of medication errors in a pediatric hospital setting and exploring effective strategies to prevent and mitigate these errors.” The purpose is to improve patient safety and optimize medication administration practices in the pediatric unit.

In this way, the problem formulation steps progress seamlessly from problem identification, where the research team identifies the issue of medication errors, to problem selection, where they decide to investigate it further, and finally to problem definition, where they outline the specific objectives and goals of their research study. Using the same example throughout the process ensures consistency and coherence in the research focus.


Example of research problem: 

Over the past years it has been observed that 30% of babies born at village X have infected cord leading to delayed  healing. A number of the baby’s die of neonatal tetanus.  The exact extent of this problem is not fully established.

The objectives of a research summarize what is to be achieved by the study.  These objectives should be closely related to the research problem. The  objectives include:

Broad objective: The general objective of a study states what  researchers expect to achieve by the study in general terms, for example The aim of the study is to establish the knowledge and practice of mothers  on care of cord. 

Specific objectives: They are a breakdown of the general objective into  smaller, logically connected parts. Specific objectives systematically  address the various research questions. They specify what you will do in  your study, where and for what purpose. 

How should you state your objectives? 

It is important that objectives are stated in a good way. Take care that the  objectives of your study are in line with the following: 

  • Cover the different aspects of the problem and its contributing factors in a  coherent way and in a logical sequence; 
  • Are clearly phrased in operational terms, specifying exactly what you are  going to do, where, and for what purpose; 
  • Are realistic considering local conditions; 
  • Use action verbs that are specific enough to be evaluated (Examples of  action verbs are: to determine, to compare, to verify, to calculate, to  describe, and to establish). Avoid the use of vague non-action verbs  (Examples of non-action verbs: to appreciate, to understand, or to study). 

How to develop a research topic/question

  • Begin by identifying a broader subject of interest that may lead to investigation, for example, diarrheal diseases 
  • Do preliminary research on the general topic to find out what research has already been done and what literature already exists.
  • Begin with “information gaps” (What do you already know about the problem? For example, studies with results on diarrheal diseases 
  • What do you still need to know? (e.g., causes of diarrheal diseases, risk factors to diarrheal diseases etc 
  • What are the broad questions: The need to know about a problem will lead to few specific questions. 
  • Narrow this to a specific population e.g. among children less than one year
  • Narrow the scope and focus of research (e.g., assessment of risk factors to diarrheal diseases  among children less than I year.)

Research objectives

A research objective is a clear and summarized statement that provides direction to investigate the variables under the study.
  • A clearly defined objective directs a researcher in the right direction.
  • A clearly defined objectives are important feature of a good research study.
  • Without a clear objective a researcher is aimless and directionless in conducting the study. 
  • Without focused objectives, no replicable scientific findings can be expected. 

Why research objectives


  • A clearly defined research objective will help the researcher to focus on the study. The formulation of research objectives helps in narrowing down the study to its essentials.
  •  It will avoid unnecessary findings, which otherwise lead to wastage of resources.


  • The formulation of research objectives helps the researcher to avoid unnecessary accumulation of data that is not needed for the chosen problem.


  • The formulation of objectives organize the study into a clearly defined parts or phases. Thus the objectives help organize the study results in to main parts as per the preset objectives.


  • A well formulated objective will facilitate the development of research methodology and will help to orient the collection, analysis, interpretation & utilization of data

A well stated objective must be “SMART

  •  S – SPECIFIC 

Specific (S): A good research objective should be clear and focused on a specific aspect or goal of the study. It avoids being too broad or vague, so researchers know exactly what they want to achieve.

Measurable (M): The objective should be measurable, meaning that there should be a way to determine if the research goal has been achieved. It’s important to use concrete and quantifiable terms to assess the outcomes.

Attainable (A): The research objective should be achievable within the resources, time, and scope of the study. It’s important to set realistic goals that can be accomplished with the available means.

Realistic (R): A good research objective should be grounded in reality and aligned with what is feasible. Researchers should consider practical constraints and not set impossible goals.

Time-Bound (T): The objective should have a specific timeframe within which it will be accomplished. Setting a deadline helps researchers stay focused and ensures the study progresses effectively.


General objectives

  • General objectives are broad goals to be achieved
  •  The general objectives of the study states what the researcher expects to achieve by the study in general terms.

General objectives are broad and overall goals that the researcher aims to achieve through the study. They provide a big-picture view of what the research intends to accomplish. These objectives are not very detailed and do not specify the exact actions to be taken. Instead, they outline the general direction and purpose of the study.

Example: For a nursing research study on patient satisfaction, a general objective could be: “To assess the factors influencing patient satisfaction in a hospital setting.”

Specific objectives

  • Specific objectives are short term and narrow in focus. 
  •  General objectives are broken into small logically connected parts to form specific objectives.
  • The general objective is met through meeting the specific objectives stated. 
  • Specific objectives clearly specify what the researcher will do in the study, where and for what purpose the study is done. 

Specific objectives are more detailed and narrow in focus. They are derived from the general objective and break it down into smaller, manageable parts. These objectives clearly state what the researcher will do, where the study will take place, and the specific purpose of the study.

Example: Continuing from the general objective above, specific objectives could be:

  1. “To conduct patient interviews to gather feedback on their hospital experience.”
  2. “To analyze the data from patient surveys to identify common themes affecting satisfaction levels.”
  3. “To compare patient satisfaction scores across different hospital departments.”

In this example, the specific objectives provide clear directions for data collection and analysis. Achieving these specific objectives will contribute to fulfilling the broader, general objective of understanding the factors influencing patient satisfaction.

Overall, general objectives set the overall direction of the research, while specific objectives break down the research process into smaller, achievable steps, guiding the researcher in accomplishing the broader research goal.

How to state objectives 
  • The objective should be presented briefly and concisely. 
  •  The objective should cover the different aspects of the problem and its contributing factors in a coherent way and in a logical sequence.
  • The objectives should be clearly phrased in operational terms, specifying exactly what the researcher is going to do, where and for what purpose. 
  •  The objectives are realistic considering the local conditions.
  • The objectives use action verbs that are specific enough to be evaluated.

Examples of action verbs

  • Define 
  • Describe 
  • Draw 
  • Identify 
  • Label 
  • List 
  • Match  
  • Record 
  • Select 
  • State
  • Name 
  • Outline 
  • Point out
  •  Quote 
  • Read 
  • Recite 
  • Recognize

Lets find the broad and specific objectives in the example below.

Examples. Risk factors to diarrheal diseases among children below 1 year.

In the example provided, the broad objective and specific objective can be identified as follows:

Broad Objective: The broad objective is the overarching goal of the research study. In this case, the broad objective is: “To identify risk factors for diarrheal diseases among children below 1 year.

Specific Objectives: Specific objectives are the smaller, more focused goals that contribute to achieving the broad objective. In this example, some specific objectives could be:

  1. “To review existing literature on diarrheal diseases in children below 1 year to identify common risk factors.”
  2. “To collect data through surveys and interviews from parents or caregivers of children below 1 year to assess their knowledge and practices related to hygiene and sanitation.”
  3. “To analyze the collected data to determine the association between certain risk factors (e.g., breastfeeding practices, water source, sanitation conditions) and the occurrence of diarrheal diseases in children below 1 year.”

In this case, the specific objectives provide clear guidance on the steps the researcher will take to fulfill the broader goal of identifying risk factors for diarrheal diseases among children below 1 year. Each specific objective contributes to achieving the overall aim of the study.

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2 thoughts on “Formulation of research topics”

  1. Thanks to the nurse for developing such a wonderful notes for simplicity
    May God bless you more
    Research has been said to be complicated but now I affirm that I’ll win good marks and apply it in my daily life
    I hope to pass the paper 🙏

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