Develop a Research Question: Develop a Working Thesis

Once you have settled on a topic and have identified the basic question at issue, you are ready to put together a working thesis statement. You probably already have a good idea of what position you’d like to argue based on the reasons why you found the subject compelling in the first place. Begin by writing a statement that expresses your opinion on your chosen topic and label it “working thesis statement.” While you may already feel pretty strongly about the truth of this statement, it’s also important to remain faithful to the process of researching your topic. After all, the point of research is to gain a deeper understanding of a subject, not to simply gather evidence to support a position you already hold. There are no guarantees in research, which can make for an exciting (and sometimes bumpy) ride. As you inquire more deeply into your topic, you will inevitably encounter information that will both support and contradict your working thesis.

For example, you have started your project with a working thesis that claims that “hydrogen-based cars are the future of environmentally friendly transportation in America.” You’ve found an article from a specialized journal in urban planning that claims that building hydrogen “gas” stations in major cities will take at least twenty more years to develop because of safety concerns. Well, you did say the future, but perhaps you didn’t mean that far into the future. What do you do now?

Cases like this one should help you develop a keen eye for evaluating sources effectively.

When you encounter a text that supports or contradicts your working thesis, your first step is to decide whether or not its argument is persuasive.
When you encounter a text that supports or contradicts your working thesis, your first step is to decide whether or not its argument is persuasive. Does it provide firm evidence for its claim of twenty years or does it simply guess? The journal is peer-reviewed, so you know that its author is a reputable scholar in this field. What other sources does the article cite? Are they reputable too? Double check a few of them to see if they make sense. See section 6 for more details.

Let’s say that you decide that this article is in fact persuasive and that it appears to contradict your working thesis. Of course, you could always pretend that you had never read it, but could you guarantee that your audience hadn’t either? Ethically and procedurally, you have no choice but to account for this information in your research. And yet, the article doesn’t claim that hydrogen cars are an impossibility; it simply offers a more specific timetable than your working thesis. Perhaps this is an opportunity to fine tune your thesis, beginning with a more specific definition of “the future.”

In this manner, each piece of information that you encounter can contribute to the development of your thesis. As your understanding of your subject becomes more nuanced, so will your thesis. Ultimately, you will end up with a much stronger thesis because each piece of evidence you encounter will require you to defend it or modify it. Thus, your paper is both a map of your own process of critical thinking and a reasoned argument that gets stronger with each successive draft.