canstockphoto16180022 downloaded 3 January 2015

I bet you thought you would be reviewing previous research forever, right? I’m sure it felt like it, but I have good news for you!

When you fully analyzed and correlated your previous research, you might have found some holes or questions that need addressing, or you found you’re ready to start a new direction for your research.

Now, you’re ready for your next challenge – to create your research question.

You might be tempted to skip this step, but it’s one of the most important parts of the research process. Without defining your question, you may be tempted to stray into sources that may divert you off track.

So, what is a research question?

“Genealogy Standards #10: Effective research questions,” reads, “Questions underlying research plans concern aspects of identity, relationship, events, and situations. The questions are sufficiently broad to be answerable with evidence from relevant places and times. They are sufficiently focused to yield answers that may be tested and shown to meet or not meet the Genealogical Proof Standard. Genealogical-research questions include (a)  a clearly described unique person, group, or event as the question’s focus; and (b) specification of unknown or forgotten information that the research is to discover (for example, an identity, relationship, event, or biographical detail).”1

A research question is NOT:

  • “I want to join the D.A.R.,” or
  • “Trace my family lines back 200 years.”

Write a major research question that involves an identity, relationship, or event. For example:

  • Which William Smith living in 1775 in New Salem, Massachusetts, served in the Revolutionary War?
  • Who were the parents of Jonathan Smith, Blacksmith, of Cazenovia, New York, in 1806?

Then, break down your major research question into individual questions to research. Concerning Jonathan Smith of Cazenovia some of the questions you might ask include:

  • When did Jonathan Smith arrive at Cazenovia?
  • Where did Jonathan Smith come from prior to Cazenovia?
  • What men surnamed Smith lived at Jonathan Smith’s prior residence?
  • Who were Jonathan Smith’s siblings?
  • Was a probate record created for his father?

Your whole research process becomes so much easier once you define your major research question and the underlying questions that will help you answer it.


  1. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn.:, 2014), 11-12.