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Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls


Research Questions - What are they?

When writing your Ph.D., it is often necessary to find "Research Questions", which will help you focus on what is necessary, help you write your thesis and help you to stay on track, instead of wandering all over the place and possibly getting lost. Finding your research questions is not always easy and this lens shows you the best way to work them out. The Goldilocks test will show you how to do it "just right" and the Russian Dolls principle will show you how to dig down to find the central kernel of information that you need.

There are other methods for developing or determining your research questions and these are also included.

I have to declare a very deep interest in this module. I am currently working out my hypothesis for my own studies, although I have already found some research questions on which I am working. So, I am researching this lens for my benefit, as much as for yours. And I am writing it with my research journal open by my side to note down any useful points that come to me as I am writing this. You may also find it useful to have your research journal open while you read this lens too. :), whether that's a real writing book or a computerised word processing document, even a Notepad page. If you want to know more about research journals, there is a separate module further down the page.

Note: It is believed that the "Goldilocks" picture is in the Public Domain. It came from an old book that someone had uploaded, although the page has since been taken down. The "Russian Dolls" are mine and I took the picture of them and amalgamated the two together.

Goldilocks? Russian Dolls?

How Can They Help Me Write My Ph. D.?

The Russian Dolls' principle and the Goldilocks test have a great deal to do with writing a Ph.D. They help you find your research question(s) which is a CRUCIAL part of writing a Ph.D. The Goldilocks test looks at whether your subject is too "hot" (e.g. of a sensitive nature), too big (would take several Ph.Ds to do) or just right. The Russian Dolls' principle helps you dig down under the surface of the research question you THINK you might write on, to find the correct question to start with. Both these ideas were showcased in a Harvard business book too, several years ago, so the ideas are good for any kind of thinking, not just for academic writing.

Note: It is important to understand that RESEARCH Questions are NOT survey or questionnaire questions. Those are the questions you might ask someone if you were carrying out a survey of some kind. Not all researchers use questionnaires but all researchers NEED Research Questions.

Research Questions - Tell Me More? - Do I need to know about Research Questions?

Helps people see if others also need to find out about Research Questions

But What do I write about?

Finding the topics you want to write on

OK, it's all very well saying that you can refine your questions and make sure they are just right, but first, what is the actual topic you want to write about? How do you work that out? (You can skip this module if you already know the answer to this. On the other hand, you might just find out something useful. :))

You need to know what your topic is, so you can then work out the research questions on which you will focus your research work and for which you will do your literature review.

A really useful site to use is at: Education Plymouth University this is a web page on research in Education and it has some very useful points on it. It also covers Goldilocks and the Russian Dolls in a slightly different way from Clough and Nutbrown, although the ideas are taken from (and credited to) the Clough and Nutbrown book.

Section 1. of the Plymouth web page (about halfway down a very long page) helps you to generate ideas and questions for your research. Without these questions you won't get anywhere. They also help guide your work and give you a means of evaluating it (evaluating = "am I answering the question?").

You may also be able to get your research questions from the thesis title you signed up to when you started your Ph.D., or the thesis title you have now modified it to, in discussion with your supervisor. To give you an example of how this can be done, I did a search on "Ph.D. University" in Google and found a site called Find a Ph.D. Project. I have never seen that site before but it lists many Ph.D. opportunities in UK universities. Some of them are basically "click here to see all opportunities at our university", others give the full title of a Ph.D. you could apply for, for instance, Understanding neighbourhood effects - An analysis of Aberdeen Housing Sub-Markets. This kind of title will help you find research questions for your project. I know absolutely NOTHING about this subject but if I were doing research on this, my initial work would be around "neighbourhood projects" and "Housing sub-Markets in Aberdeen". These are very simplistic topics but the Goldilocks Test and the Russian Dolls principle, discussed in the next module, would help me refine these to something that could be used as part of my research. You will also find some information on developing topics like this into more complex questions further down this page.

Finding the Nuggets in the Deep Pond - You're looking for the small important things in a huge pool

Searching hard

Searching hard

A boy enjoys looking for critters in the water by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This is a Public Domain picture from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Mind Map for Research Questions - This could go in your Research Journal

Mind Map on Research Questions

Mind Map on Research Questions

While you're reading this lens, make notes, draw diagrams, draw a mind map. They will all help you make connections and help you sort out the relationships between the various parts of your thesis.

A Student's Guide to Methodology by Clough and Nutbrown

A Student's Guide to Methodology by Clough and Nutbrown

Scroll to Continue

Using the BOOK: A Student's Guide to Methodology

Get the basics from the book

Clough and Nutbrown wrote the book "The Student's Guide to Methodology", which includes the Goldilocks Test and the Russian Dolls Principle. The book has the basics of using these and I will cover these in this module. Clough and Nutbrown use the Russian Doll metaphor to illustrate how you need to dig deep into your original ideas for research to define the central kernel of what you will be looking at, that is, the tiny doll in the middle of all the layers. They then run these questions through the "Goldilocks Test", (too big, too small, too sensitive) to check out whether those questions are suitable for the current circumstances. For instance, research that focuses on an area of discrimination, using individual interviews might not be appropriate in the middle of a legal, political or media battle focusing on that area in that particular place at that particular time.

The Clough and Nutbrown book gives a detailed case study, starting on page 38, of how to set about devising research questions, starting from the initial decision to cover an area, details of the problems seen and key people involved. It then provides some draft research questions and shows how the Goldilocks Test and the Russian Dolls principle can be used to find the "Right" research questions for this study. It also provides a draft framework (table) that you can plug your own initial research questions into, to develop them into your final, refined research questions.

This method of refining research questions is further discussed and illustrated with different examples and a PowerPoint slideshow in the Plymouth Education site, which is covered in more detail in the next module.

Others have also provided additional information on using these to develop your Research Questions and this is also covered further down the lens.

Get the Book: A Student's Guide to Methodology

Plymouth Education Site

Internet site with detailed help on refining research questions

Plymouth University Education page is a very long page with a wealth of detailed, useful information. It bears close examination because it is extremely helpful for ANY area of research not just education. It also gives access to a very useful PowerPoint presentation which further explains the Goldilocks test and Russian Doll principle. I went through it with my Research Journal open by my side and just plugged MY areas into what they were saying and came up with useful credible research questions that have been accepted by the viva panel that my University requires all students to complete at the end of their first year of study. Watching the PowerPoint presentation will require having PowerPoint on your computer, as the link given will download the presentation to your computer. Once you open it and start it going, it runs automatically after that. The presentation can be accessed from this link, which downloads the presentation to your computer.

Sources for Research Question Development on the Internet

other places to find help

There are some useful sites on the Internet where you can find help on developing Research Questions.

One web site is at This site gives a full explanation on developing research questions and gives some in-depth examples of how to pose a research question and 6 criteria to use.

These criteria are:

1. identify your theoretical construct

2. make it concrete and specific

3. in general, do not include your data source (some exceptions)

4. identify YOUR contribution to theory

5. make sure the answer is not already known

6. should have the capacity to generate complex results.

This web site gives specific examples and clarifies exactly how each of these criteria should be used. It also provides a VERY useful list of the types of question beginnings that typify research questions that are likely to produce robust findings. It also suggests that you develop only one research question but gives an example of where more than one would be necessary, such as where basic information about a theoretical construct does not exist.

Conceptual Conversations

University of Texas

This website suggests that you find a partner with whom you can have some long conversations for developing your dissertation topic. This may not necessarily be at Ph.D. level, however, the site gives some VERY useful questions that you can use to choose a topic and develop your proposal. The site appears to be primarily aimed at those just starting out on the research process and uses what it calls "conceptual conversations". If your supervisor is not available and you can't find a willing partner to listen and keep you talking, these questions could also be used as prompts for writing in your research journal. You do HAVE a Research Journal?

Research Journal - Do you have a Research Journal?

An entry in my research journal

An entry in my research journal

A research journal is vital for anyone doing research of any kind. It isn't for showing to anyone else (unless you choose). It is ONLY for you. It can be hardcopy or electronic, it can have lined paper or plain, it can include doodles, newspaper clippings, cartoons, odd notes, observations, references to books and articles you think might be useful, films you have seen or notes on a program you heard on the radio, or an overheard conversation on the bus. It is useful for students, writers of all kinds, artists, cooks experimenting with new recipes, artisans or craft workers wanting to keep records of new techniques and materials tried, in short, anyone who needs to remember something! It does NOT require perfection, it's NOT for sharing (unless you choose), so it can be as messy as you like, with notes, different colors of ink, stuck in bits, elastic bands and sticky bits holding things in, provided you can interpret it when you need it! If you find it difficult to break the tyranny of a blank sheet of paper, waiting for a da Vinci or Einsteinian comment, then write in bold letters at the top: "NOT SURE MODE". That can help break the thought patterns that your writing or inclusions will not be good enough. They will be good enough for the purpose that you need. :)

Writer's Block

Writer's Block

I Can't Get Started to Write!

Get Writing

Someone (even before the advent of typewriters and word processors) once found that it was difficult to overcome "the tyranny of the blank page". That's why it's called writers' block - writer's are "blocked" from writing and not necessarily from the visit to the pub or evening BBQ session the night before! There is more on how to break the block in my previous lens in this series, on Best Books and Posts for Your PH.D.

Have You Got Writer's Block? - Do you want help to overcome writer's block?

There are a great many books available on getting stuck into writing of any kind, not just your Ph.D. Your writing might be a lens, a poem, a cookery recipe, a letter, a novel, an instruction manual, a screenplay, anything at all. Would you be interested in a lens about getting writing, and about overcoming Writer's Block?

More Useful Sites for helping develop your Research Questions

Research Questions (continued)

Developing research questions - PDF download

dissertation recipes PDF download

This site provides a downloadable 3-page PDF document which gives you information and examples of research questions in a number of different areas, mainly education and social sciences. It also provides a useful checklist that you can use to test your research questions against.

Develop your dissertation topic

help on writing your dissertation

This site provides help on understanding the requirements for a dissertation and how to manage this large piece of work


Get writing

If you enjoyed this hub and would now like to write one yourself, why not join Hub Pages? Joining any writing site and doing some writing will help you with your thesis or dissertation. Even join a blogging site - by writing a little every day, you can improve your motivation and ability to write your dissertation.

This lens has covered how to produce a research question when writing and researching for your Ph.D. (doctorate). Please share your thoughts on this.

Your Thoughts on Producing Research Questions?

RoadMonkey (author) on October 18, 2020:

Oh yes, Denise. I have also thought that a number of the fairy tales should have sequels. For instance, I wrote a sequel to Red Riding Hood, where she has to make her way back through the wood to get home from Granny's.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on October 08, 2020:

I love these fairy tale concepts. You see you can use fairy tales for more than childhood entertainment. Very clever.



RoadMonkey (author) on April 29, 2020:

Hi Nell Rose. Thanks for visiting. Yes, the Goldilocks idea is one of those where you go "Of course!" I like both those ideas, they work well together.

RoadMonkey (author) on April 29, 2020:

Hi Shyron, thanks for visiting. Glad it was helpful.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on April 23, 2020:

Road Monkey, thank you for the new tips on gridlock

I have a binder full of facts and will need to put questions to them, this information is useful.

I have a set of Russian dolls.

Blessings my friend

Nell Rose from England on April 23, 2020:

Hi, I had never heard of the goldilocks and Russian dolls idea. But reading it, yes it makes sense. Too hot, too big, etc. Interesting stuff.

RoadMonkey (author) on April 08, 2020:

Yes, a great many fairy tales are not appropriate for these days. I have changed a few myself and many others are changed when being set into print for young children. For instance, I believe that in "The Three little Pigs", the first two pigs (straw and wood) were eaten, whereas nowadays, they escape to their brother's house (brick). Also, in the same story, the wolf gets boiled up into soup and eaten but that is generally left out these days.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on April 04, 2020:

My research is limited to fairy tales and folk tales from around the world. But I do have to narrow them down and pick the ones I think most appropriate. The interesting thing I have found is that many fairy tales are absolutely gruesome and I wouldn't want my grandkids reading them. So my first criteria in narrowing down the many fairy tales out there is "would I be willing to tell this one to my own grandchildren?" Then it has to be short enough to fit in my book. I've given each letter of the alphabet one page for the story. In many cases, I can just shorten the story to fit, but in others, the story goes on and on and just won't work for my alphabet book. These are helpful when I'm doing my research.



RoadMonkey (author) on August 25, 2019:

Thank you very much.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on August 24, 2019:

This is a lot of information but very clearly presented. I sure appreciate the breakdown.



Robert Sacchi on January 29, 2019:

You're welcome.

RoadMonkey (author) on January 29, 2019:

You are welcome, thanks for visiting

Robert Sacchi on January 29, 2019:

Thank you. I appreciate your detailed explanation.

RoadMonkey (author) on January 29, 2019:

Hello Robert, thank you for your comment. It definitely applies to thesis writing: and it was written with this in mind, however, the Goldilocks concept was developed for research writing in an educational context, not necessarily for Ph.D work or theses in particular. In terms of factual writing, I would say that both concepts apply to all factual writing. After all, a journalist would want to find the "just right" story for a newspaper and would want to cut to the kernel, in terms of stripping out extraneous material. The Posusta book on procrastination was not aimed at Ph.D. students, yet I found it immensely helpful in writing my thesis. That book would have been useful in high school!

Robert Sacchi on January 25, 2019:

An interesting peek into the world of PhD. Is the advice in this Hub applicable to all writing, all research writing, or is a thesis writing a whole different animal?

RoadMonkey (author) on March 07, 2018:

Thank you very much. We can learn a lot from fairy tales and other old works

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 26, 2018:

It's fascinating what you can learn out of things you hold so dear to your heart I loved Goldilocks and the Russian dolls is a work like no other art your read was delightfully inspiring to me thanks

RoadMonkey (author) on December 09, 2017:

Goldilocks has turned out to be a very useful person, from a start as a burglar!

Nell Rose from England on December 07, 2017:

The term goldilocks is used so much these days, from Astronomy to math etc. this is so useful for people who need this information.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on April 30, 2017:

Thank you so much for the clarification, I have not thought of fairy tales in that way, I wish I had thought of them in that way long ago.

Blessings always

RoadMonkey (author) on April 30, 2017:

Hi Shyron,

I look on Goldilocks and the three bears as being a fairy tale, though I suppose it doesn't actually include any fairies. The term "goldilocks" is used quite a lot in science these days as denoting an area that is neither too much nor too little, as in "The earth occupies a Goldilocks slot in its orbit around the sun", because it is neither too close (and thus too hot) nor too far away (and thus too cold). Goldilocks provides a good way of explaining certain concepts, as does Red Riding Hood (don't talk to strangers, don't wander from the path), Sleeping Beauty (you can't keep children from ALL sources of harm, better teach them how to deal with it rather than hide it all away) and The Three Billy Goats Gruff (if you are greedy, you may lose the lot). Other stories cover these points too, including Aesop's fables and many of the country-specific fairy takes.

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on April 28, 2017:

I came back to read this again.

Fairy stories? Sorry I don't understand the reference.

RoadMonkey (author) on April 13, 2017:

Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. Fairy stories can have so many uses!

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on March 29, 2017:

Hello RoadMonkey, this is a useful and informative hub and I am sure I will be back often.

Blessings from one grandma to another

RoadMonkey (author) on February 15, 2017:

Two very interesting subjects!

Nell Rose from England on February 05, 2017:

This was really interesting. I didn't actually go on to college or university, but I did go to evening classes in psychology and creative writing, really useful for readers.

RoadMonkey (author) on February 23, 2016:

I have a set of Russian dolls, someone gave me and I used those for the picture.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 10, 2016:

There obviously is little chance that I'll be getting my doctorate anytime soon, but this got me to thinking that I don't think I've ever actually seen Russian dolls, and for some reason I find that amazing. Of course I've seen them on television and in magazines, but I've never actually held I need to rectify that deficiency. :)

RoadMonkey (author) on June 13, 2015:

Thank you very much

justmesuzanne from Texas on June 12, 2015:

An unusual topic very thoroughly covered! Voted up, useful and interesting! :)

peachy from Home Sweet Home on February 05, 2015:

wonderful article, i thought this is a remake story

RoadMonkey (author) on January 26, 2015:

Thank you very much

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on January 25, 2015:

This is a great article and I am sure you will be very successful in all you do. Very good advice.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 22, 2014:

Thank you very much Suzette. I think I can learn a great deal from you and how you share your own and others' work and the amount of research you put into your topics!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on October 21, 2014:

Wonderful article on a good strategy for writing a dissertation for a PhD degree. I like your analogies to Goldilocks and Russian Dolls as they work well for this topic. This brought back memories for me as I have written a Master's Thesis and I had to come up with research questions and follow the research methodology. I can just imagine what you are going through writing a dissertation. You give great suggestions and advice. The best advice is not telling anyone about your research. They can read it when you are published!

RoadMonkey (author) on March 05, 2014:

@Melissa Miotke: Yes, it applies to a great deal of writing. Thanks for visiting and commenting

Melissa Miotke from Arizona on March 04, 2014:

I don't have a Ph.D. but I think that a lot of your advice applies to writing in general and I found it very interesting.

RoadMonkey (author) on January 29, 2014:

@susan369: Thank you! And, thanks for visiting.

susan369 on January 29, 2014:

Wow, I admire you for taking on a PhD in your retirement. A very informative lens!

RoadMonkey (author) on December 29, 2013:

@lesliesinclair: Yes, I think that's very true. Thanks for visiting and commenting

lesliesinclair on December 29, 2013:

Knowing what difference the idea does or will make is critical for me to make a connection with my motivation factor, regarding writing.

RoadMonkey (author) on November 25, 2013:

@TreasuresBrenda: Yes, indeed, not always, but in terms of a PhD, your research MUST be new and unique (novel), so you don't give away your ideas until you publish them as yours. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Treasures By Brenda from Canada on November 25, 2013:

Keeping a good idea close to your chest is important in many walks of life!

RoadMonkey (author) on November 16, 2013:

@mel-kav: Thank you for your comments and for visiting.

mel-kav on November 15, 2013:

Very informative and useful strategies here. Well presented lens. Thanks for sharing.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 30, 2013:

@rob-hemphill: Keeping focused is useful. Thanks for visiting

Rob Hemphill from Ireland on October 29, 2013:

Very interesting read. Keeping focused while writing without interruption or deviation is the key for me.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 28, 2013:

@smine27: Sometimes, it's useful to draw out a mindmap of what you have already done on that lens. It then usually "pops out" at you, as to what is missing. I find that happening for me, anyway. Thanks for visiting.

Shinichi Mine from Tokyo, Japan on October 28, 2013:

Strange how I have lots of ideas but I still get writer's block sometimes...right in the middle of creating a lens!

RoadMonkey (author) on October 24, 2013:

@TanoCalvenoa: Yes, I often find my best ideas arriving while I am in bed or the bath or doing something that occupies my hands, such as ironing or the dishes. Thanks for visiting.

TanoCalvenoa on October 24, 2013:

I'm glad I don't have writer's block. Problem for me is finding enough time to write down all my ideas.

RoadMonkey (author) on October 22, 2013:

@anonymous: Thank you very much and thank you for visiting.

anonymous on October 22, 2013:

Impressive lens, keep the good work. :)

RoadMonkey (author) on September 09, 2013:

@Pat Goltz: Glad you found it enlightening. Thank you very much for visiting and commenting.

Pat Goltz on September 08, 2013:

I always thought your major professor basically came up with the question, though obviously you have a right to make suggestions, and to veto an idea or work with him to come up with the question. This was enlightening.

anonymous on August 22, 2013:

Love the Russian Dolls always have done I have never had any but still like to see them just the

RoadMonkey (author) on July 10, 2013:

@anonymous: That must have been a great school! Wish my teachers had known about it when I was at school but that was a very long time ago. :)

anonymous on July 10, 2013:

We had a method similar to this taught to us at School and it has stayed with me forever I can tell you.

RoadMonkey (author) on March 09, 2013:

@ismeedee: Thank you for visiting. Glad you liked the lens. Yes, Goldilocks is very useful, isn't she?

ismeedee on March 09, 2013:

Wow this is a great resource for university students and the Goldlilocks analogy is a good one. Astronomers coin the phrase Goldilocks Zone which refers to the area in space where it is not too hot or too cold to sustain life!

RoadMonkey (author) on February 24, 2013:

@Kalafina: Thank you for visiting. Sorry to hear about your illness, I hope it improves and you can get back to reading medical journals. My father used to get medical journals when I was a child and I used to love reading through them!

Kalafina on February 24, 2013:

Loved this lens. I wanted to study fibrodysplasia ossicans progressiva in zebrafish or using viruses (no level 4 viral hemorrhagic fevers!) as a means to possibly use for gene therapy. I must be honest. Because of my now health problems I have difficulty reading long paragraps together so I had to do more of a skim then full read of your work. Ah how I miss those days of medical journals! Congrats on your success in life!

RoadMonkey (author) on February 21, 2013:

@anonymous: Thank you very much. Glad you liked them and thank you for your visit.

anonymous on February 21, 2013:

My goodness your articles are so interesting. I'm impressed once again. :)

RoadMonkey (author) on February 17, 2013:

@TolovajWordsmith: Yes, narrowing the research to something you can actually do and complete can be tough. Hopefully Golidlocks can help with that. Thank you for visiting.

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on February 16, 2013:

I like to research and it seems good questions are really not so hard to find when you dig in interesting material. Staying focused and narrowing the research is much harder, at least for me...

RoadMonkey (author) on November 12, 2012:

@Cari Kay 11: Thank you. Glad you liked it.

RoadMonkey (author) on November 12, 2012:

@TaraWojt: Thank you very much

Kay on November 12, 2012:

Your bio alone has me blessing this page but, really, great information!!!

RoadMonkey (author) on September 28, 2012:

@TaraWojt: Thank you very much.

Tara Wojtaszek on September 28, 2012:

Very interesting and well presented.

RoadMonkey (author) on September 07, 2012:

Thank you very much for visiting. We all have our strengths in different areas and I would not have been able to do this study back when I was young because I would not have had the skills or tenacity. We can do different things at different times. :)

Annbulance2000 on September 07, 2012:

I think I know why I did not go to university and went to college instead.I can see how you will achieve a PHD and I would struggle even to start one. Well done for being so tenacious and good luck. I was merely attracted by the matryoshka. To me they symbolise my family all hugging one another. Thanks for this interesting lense. I am afraid my brain does not work well with the information you have provided, but that's not unusual, my school reports were mostly, "Anna is a difficult person to help, she does not seem to pay attention when it is needed." however I am going to visit another of your lenses because I like your layout and approach with words and somehow I find you inspiring.

RoadMonkey (author) on July 05, 2012:

@TheGourmetCoffe: Thank you very much X 3! LOL

TheGourmetCoffe on July 04, 2012:

Enjoyed your lens very much, quite insightful, thank you for sharing your insights! Also "liked" your lens!

RoadMonkey (author) on July 03, 2012:

@JoshK47: Thank you very much.

RoadMonkey (author) on July 03, 2012:

@Stress-Coach: Thanks. Glad it's useful for you. That's always nice to know.

RoadMonkey (author) on July 03, 2012:

@stacytm lm: No, I don't think so. LOL Though it's very nice of you to say that. I think the main requirement is dogged persistence!

RoadMonkey (author) on July 03, 2012:

@strategery: Thanks very much. You're welcome. I am only now able to see the comments. I was getting emails about them but unable to see them.

JoshK47 on July 03, 2012:

Very interesting!

Stress-Coach on June 25, 2012:

again another fantastic lens very valuable information for some research I am doing for my business thank you

stacytm lm on June 24, 2012:

you must be very clever :)

strategery on June 24, 2012:

Very good info to have! Thank you for sharing!

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