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Selecting a Research Topic
The ability to develop a good research topic is an important skill. Sometimes instructors will assign a specific topic, usually they will ask you to select a topic that interests you. When you choose your own topic, you will need to:
  • brainstorm for ideas
  • read general background information
  • focus in on a manageable topic 
  • make a list of useful keywords 
  • be flexible 
  • define your topic as a focused research question
  • research and read more about your topic
  • formulate a thesis statement

Be aware, selecting a good topic is not easy. It must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting, yet broad enough to find adequate information for your research. Before you select your topic, make sure you know what your final research project should look like. Each instructor, or class, will have somewhat different requirements and purposes for research. 

Use the steps below to help you carefully define and select your research topic. 

Step 1: Brainstorm to get research topic ideas

  • Choose a topic that interests you. Even if a topic has been assigned, you may be able to choose a particular aspect of the topic that interests you personally. Use the following questions to help you generate topic ideas.
    • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
    • Did you read a newspaper article, or see a TV broadcast recently that piqued your curiosity or made you angry or anxious?
    • Do you have a personal issue, problem, or interest you'd like to know more about?
    • Do you have a research paper due in a class this semester? 
    • Is there an aspect of one of your courses you are interested in learning more about?
  • Look at some of the following topically oriented Web sites and research sites for ideas
  • Write down any words or phrases that may be of interest to you. Could any of these be the basis for a more focused topic?
  • Be aware of the following overused topic ideas: You may wish to avoid topics like abortion, gun control, teen pregnancy, suicide, assisted suicide or teen suicide, unless you have a new and unique approach. Your instructor may have other topics that he/she feels are inappropriate.

Step 2: Read general background information 

  • Read a general encyclopedia article on the top two or three topics you are considering. Reading a broad summary enables you to get an overview of the topic and see how your idea relates to broader, narrower and related issues. It also provides a great source for finding words commonly used to describe the topic. These keywords may be very useful to your later research. If you can't find an article on your topic, try using broader terms and ask for help from a librarian. 

    For example, the Britannica may not have an article on "Social and Political Implications of  Jackie Robinson's Breaking of the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball" but there will be articles on "baseball history" and on "Jackie Robinson".

    • Browse the Funk and Wagnalls Encyclopedia on your topic ideas. Notice the Britannica also provides links to magazine articles and Web sites. These are listed on either side of the encyclopedia articles in the display.
       
  • Use article databases to scan current magazine, journal or newspaper articles on the topic.   Ask a librarian if they can help you to browse articles on any of your topics of interest. 
  • Use Web search engines to find Web sites on the topic.

Step 3: Focus in on your topic

  • Keep it manageable. A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad, or too narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic such as "the environment" is to limit  your topic. Common ways to limit a topic are: 
    • by geographic region
      • Example: What environmental issues are most important in the Southwestern United States?
    • by culture
      • Example: How does the environment fit into the Navajo world view?
    • by time frame  
      • Example: What are the most prominent environmental issues of the last 10 years?
    • by discipline  
      • Example: How does environmental awareness effect business practices today?
    • by population group  
      • Example: What are the effects of air pollution on seniors citizens?
  • Remember that a topic will be more difficult to research if it is too:
    • locally confined - Topics this specific may only be covered in local newspapers, if at all!
      • Example: What sources of pollution affect the Ogden valley water supply? 
    • recent  - Be aware if a topic is very recent, books and journal articles will not be available, but newspaper and magazine articles will. Web sites may or may not be available.
      • Example: Events that happened yesterday or last week
    • broadly interdisciplinary - You could be overwhelmed with superficial information
      • Example: How can the environment contribute to the culture, politics and society of the Western states? 
    • popular - You will only find very popular articles about some topics, including sports figures, rock music and rap stars.

  • If you have any uncertainties about the focus of your topic:
    • discuss your topic with your instructor
    • discuss your topic with a librarian

Step 4: Make a list of useful keywords 

  • Keep track of the words that are used to describe your topic. 
    • Look for words that best describe your topic.
    • These words will be found in the encyclopedia articles and other reading you do while selecting your topic.
    • Find synonyms, broader  and narrower terms for each keyword you find in order to expand your search capabilities
    • Keep a list of these words to use as keywords later as you search in catalogs and other online databases

Step 5: Be flexible

  • It is common to modify your topic during the research process. You can never be sure of what you may find. You may find too much and need to narrow your focus, or too little and need to broaden your focus. This is a normal part of the research process. When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable. 
  • Keep in mind the assigned length of the research paper, project, bibliography or other research assignment. Be aware of the depth of coverage needed and the due date. These important factors may help you decide how much and when you will modify your topic. You instructor will probably provide specific requirements, if not the table below may provide a rough guide:
Assigned length of research paper or project  Suggested guidelines for approximate number and types of sources needed
1-2 page paper 2-3 magazine articles or Web sites
3-5 page paper 4-8 items, including book, articles (scholarly and/or popular) and Web sites
Annotated bibliography 6-15 items including books, scholarly articles, Web sites and other items
10-15 page research paper 12-20 items, including books, scholarly articles, web sites and other items
  • Remember to consult your instructor and assignment for specific requirements

Step 6: Define your topic as a focused research question

  • You will often begin with a word, develop a more focused interest in an aspect of something relating to that word, then begin to have questions about the topic. 

    For example: 

    • Ideas = Frank Lloyd Wright or modern architecture
    • Research Question = How has Frank Lloyd Wright influenced modern architecture?
    • Focused Research Question = What design principles used by Frank Lloyd Wright are common in contemporary homes?

Step 7: Research and read more about your topic

  • Use the key words you have gathered to research in the catalog, article databases and Internet search engines. Find more information to help answer your research question.
  • You will need to do some research and reading before you select your final topic. Can you find enough information to answer your research question? Remember, selecting a topic is an important and complex part of the research process.

Step 8: Formulate a thesis statement

  • Write your topic as a thesis statement. This may be the answer to your research question and/or a way to clearly state the purpose of your research. Your thesis statement will usually be one or two sentences that states precisely what is to be answered, proven, or what you will inform your audience about your topic.
  • The development of a thesis assumes there is sufficient evidence to support the thesis statement.
    • For example, a thesis statement could be: Frank Lloyd Wright's design principles, including his use of ornamental detail and his sense of space and texture opened a new era of American architecture. His work has influenced contemporary residential design. 
  • The title of your paper may not be exactly the same as your research question or your thesis statement, but the title should clearly convey the focus, purpose and meaning of your research.
    • For example, a title could be: Frank Lloyd Wright: Key Principles of Design For the Modern Home.
  • Remember to follow any specific instructions from your instructor.

EXAMPLES

If you started to brainstorm with this idea... Your focused research question might be ... Your thesis statement may be ... Your keywords may
be ...
Napster Am I  infringing on musicians rights when I use Napster ? Napster is at the center of the current Internet copyright controversy. Individuals wanting to share the music they love, are at legal odds with the music industry wanting to be paid for the music it produces.  Napster, music, sharing, Internet, copyright, musicians
Degas What was the the impact of New Orleans on the painting of Edgar Degas? Edgar Degas visits to his uncle's plantation in Louisiana influenced his later painting. Edgar Degas, Louisiana, New Orleans, impressionist painting
wolves in Yellowstone How have the wolves in Yellowstone effected local ranching in the past 5 years? The introduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the past 5 years has impacted local cattle ranches. wolves, wolf, Yellowstone, ranchers, ranching
legalization of marijuana What would be the effects of the legalization of marijuana on the terminally ill? Marijuana has many practical medical uses. Legalizing marijuana would positively effect terminally ill patients. marijuana, cannabis, legalization, legalize, legal, therapeutic, medical
legalization of marijuana What would be the effects of the legalization of marijuana on the economic system of our country? The legalization of marijuana would have positive effects on our economy. marijuana, cannabis, legalization, legalize, legal, taxes, drug prevention, war on drugs
sports and violence Are professional athletes more violent than the average male? Many factors contribute to a higher than average rate of violence among professional athletes. professional athletes, sports, violence, abuse
Lake Powell Should Lake Powell be drained? Draining Lake Powell would affect the environment, economy, and electricity supply. Lake Powell, draining, environment, economy, electricity
Parental involvement in schools How can parental involvement improve a child's learning? Parental involvement in elementary school can help students reach academic success parents, students, parental involvement, elementary schools, achievement 

Practical Exercises to Extend Your Learning:

  • Identify three narrower aspects of the following broad topics. In other words, what are three areas you could investigate that fit into these very broad topics.
    • Sports
    • Pollution
    • Politics
     
  • Identify a broader topic that would cover the following narrow topics. In other words, how could you expand these topics to find more information.
    • Menus in Utah prisons
    • Urban planning in Box Elder County
    • Beaver dams on the Bear River
  • Imagine that you have been assigned the following topics. Think of 5 keywords you might use to look for information on each.
    • How does air quality effect our health?
    • What are the barriers to peace in the Middle East?
    • Should snowmobiling be allowed in wilderness areas?
    • How can welfare reform help poor children?
Updated March 5, 2009
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