BACKGROUND: Using a theoretical framework is often viewed as laborious or unnecessary for higher degree research projects. However, considering research problems through the lens of a theoretical framework can provide a structure for students to focus their research questions and produce findings that are more likely to address the research problem. AIM: To explain the utility of a theoretical framework and demonstrate the inclusion of a theoretical framework - deterrence theory - in a research project exploring plagiarism in nursing education. DISCUSSION: The experiences of a higher degree research student provided insight into the inclusion of a theoretical framework in a research plan. The benefits of this process are highlighted so other students can appreciate the importance of this process to their research plan and findings. CONCLUSION: A framework can add value to the overall research plan, from developing the research question through to the analysis and presentation of research findings. Fundamentally, frameworks provide a map for a study, providing a rationale for the development of the research questions or research hypothesis. A theoretical framework brings cohesion to the research project by linking the research questions and providing 'intellectual bins' for data analysis and presentation of research findings. IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: This article may assist higher degree research students in recognising the benefits of using a theoretical framework and provides an example of a 'real-life' application in a research project. The authors argue that theoretical frameworks can strengthen the likelihood that the research has produced meaningful findings that have addressed the research problem.