Selecting a topic can be the most difficult part of doing research. Defining and refining your topic is an ongoing process. Be prepared to change the focus of your topic as you gather more information. How you select your topic will depend also on what your instructor has specified.
These are some general guidelines to follow:
- Interesting: Select a subject you can get interested in. Since you will be spending a considerable amount of time researching your topic, you will want it to be something that holds your interest and that of the reader.
- Focus: Make sure that your topic isn't too narrow or too vague. If the topic is too broad, you will be overwhelmed with information. If the topic is too narrow, you may not be able to find enough information for your research paper. A good first step is trying to ask a question about your topic to give you both a focus and structure.
Broad topic: anorexia --> Focused topic: What is the relationship between women's fashion magazines and anorexia?
Your research question should be opened ended, will guide you in further research, and will help you formulate your thesis.
Writing about Popular Topics
Try to be original and creative. Some topics have been overdone, and this leads to an overwhelming amount of information, making it difficult to focus a topic. Some topics that might be overdone include: gun control, abortion, capital punishment, drugs abuse.
Try to look at topics like these from a new perspective or angle. For example: "Under what circumstances, if any, should drug abuse by pregnant women be considered child abuse?"
If a topic has made recent news headlines, think about what has made the issue controversial or newsworthy to get started on your research:
What is the history of assault rifle legislation in the United States? instead of To what extent can the government control gun ownership according to the 2nd amendment?
By starting with what makes an otherwise common topic newsworthy it is making your research relevant, timely, more manageable and will lead you to a more interesting research question or thesis statement.
Consult Hot Research Topics & Controversial Issues for ideas and new perspectives if you wish to write about current controversies.
Picking Your Topic
All topics can be viewed from several angles. What are the smaller questions that will help create an answer to the primary question?
Who are the people affected by your study?
age, ethnicity, gender, profession, company/industry
What are the components or aspects of the topic will you explore?
causes, effects, diagnosis or treatment, problems, trends
Where does your topic fit?
Is there a specific country, state, county, city, or country in which your topic fits geographically? Can the "where" be defined by a broader regional concept such as urban/rural, global/local? Can there where also define your population - such as college campuses, prisons, elementary schools?
When did the issue or event become important?
a specific century/decade/specific time span are you going to need the most current information available? Historical information? Both?
Why is this topic important? What is significant about this issue?
articulate the possible approaches and select the best one for your needs.
You don't not have to answer all these questions to have a strong research topic, but being able to answer some of these will allow you better develop your research and a focused topic.
Many research topics are interdisciplinary and the disciplinary focus will determine the appropriate tools to use to locate information.
For example, for the question: What is the relationship between women's fashion magazines and anorexia?you could look within the following fields:
Reference books such as encyclopedias and handbooks will offer short articles for exactly this purpose. See the Encyclopedias page, the subject guide best related to your area, or ask at the Research Help deskto help you locate one.
Formulate a thesis that is consistent with the evidence you find. It should be of significance to the discipline and supportable by the evidence.
As you gather information, you will formulate new questions and possibly even change the focus of your research, so your thesis may change.
If the issue is a controversial one, your thesis should reflect the position you are taking. A strong research paper will reflect both sides of an argument, and researching this is an important part of gathering background information.
For further reading:
- Tips and Examples for Writing Thesis Statements (Purdue OWL)
- Formulating your Research Question (Vanderbilt Writing Center)