Tips for Deciding on a Research Topic
- Read the assignment requirements carefully. If you are unsure what topic would be relevant, talk to your professor.
- Choose a topic you find interesting.
- Consider how others have written about your topic. Resources they have used will likely be helpful.
- Consider your topic's scope. How broad or narrow is it?
- If your topic is too broad it may be difficult to find focused and relevant information. The topic also should be focused enough that it is meaningful to your audience.
- It may be hard to find information on a very narrow topic. If your topic is highly focused, be more flexible in your search strategy. For example, if you're interested in organic food labeling in a specific city, widen your information search to organic food labeling within the United States. Also think about what topic will be meaningful to your audience. What relevance will the topic have to them?
Once you have a broad topic in mind, these strategies will help you refine your research focus:
- Background research can help you learn more about your topic, and may also help you refine your focus. By knowing more about your topic's background, you can develop a more effective topic and a stronger research paper.
- Brainstorm concepts. Think of words or concepts that relate to that topic. (For example, if your topic is "polar bears," associated words might include: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, and environmental icon.)
- Develop a research question. Once you have a broad research topic and have done some background research, develop a research question. What about this topic interests you and is likely to also engage your readers?
- What's your general approach to the topic? Your research could, for example, use a historical angle (focusing on a particular time period); a geographical angle (focusing on a particular part of the world); or a sociological angle (focusing on a particular group of people). The angle you choose will depend largely on the nature of your research question and often on the class or the academic discipline in which you are working.
- Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you look for relevant sources, such as scholarly articles and books, refine your topic based on what you find. While examining sources, consider how others discuss the topic. How might the sources inform or challenge your approach to your research question?
- Research is a dynamic process. Be prepared to modify or refine your topic. This is usually the sign of thoughtful and well-done research.
The topic development process below can help you to develop your thesis (your proposed answer to your research question) and to continue gathering additionally needed sources.
Resources to help you develop your topic:
- Your instructor, librarians, course readings, class notes, Wikipedia, and Google
- Library resources like Oxford Reference Online and subject-specific encyclopedias: overviews and introductions to topics that can also help you identify research topics and gain background knowledge
- Subject Guides and Course Guides: online guides that help you identify encyclopedias, books, databases, and other materials
Video from Portland State University Library