Research interests vs research questions

A research project starts with a well-built research question. This question needs to be structured such that a study can answer the question. This means you need to specify to some detail who and what you’ll be looking at. In this process, compromises will be made. There are two tools used to focus a general question into one that can be answered by a study: FINER and PICO.

  • F = FEASIBLE. Is the question something you have the time, money, expertise and patients to complete? If not, consider revising your question to something more achievable. This is also a good time to do a sample size calculation. There are several sample size calculators you can find online.
  • I = INTERESTING. Others should find your topic interesting. Ask around. The NIH has a nice table that shows where they’ve spent money (ie, what they found interesting)
  • N = NOVEL. Your study should explore new findings, or confirm/refute/extend old findings. Don’t do something that everyone’s already done before.
  • E = ETHICAL. Avoid risks to your patients, whether physical, mental or privacy related. Luckily, the IRB will ensure you don’t tread wrongly here.
  • R = RELEVANT. Will this study have an impact on clinical practice, health policy or future research?

The other acronym is PICO in which you should specify the following elements in your question:

  • P = POPULATION. From which population will you be drawing your sample?
  • I = INTERVENTION. What is the thing you are testing?
  • C = COMPARISON. What are you comparing that against?
  • O = OUTCOME. What metric will you measure to determine if there was an improvement?

Primary and Secondary Questions

If you’re going through the work of doing a study, you may as well collect data on more than one question. Only one question can be the primary research question around which sample size estimates are calculated, however the insights from secondary questions can lead to future research projects.

Translational Research

Translational research translates research (amazing, I know) from one field (eg, basic science, economics, mathematics, physics education) to another (eg, clinical practice, medical education). There are two types:

  • T1 RESEARCH: basic science → clinical practice (bench to bedside)
  • T2 RESEARCH: clinical practice → population health

Usually two people (one from each side) work together to build the collective expertise needed to address the question. For example, an physiologist and a intensivist may work to translate the latest animal studies into clinical relevance. Or a clinician and an epidemiologist can attempt to apply a new therapy to an entire population.


  1. Amal Mattu’s Niche:
  2. NIH Table of spending:
  3. Hulley’s “Designing Clinical Research”