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How Do I...?: Choosing a Research Topic

Choosing a Research Topic

If you've been granted freedom to choose a topic for your assignment, consider yourself lucky! This means you can try to choose something that interests you, which is an important factor in putting together a good research project.* In fact, it's one of three important factors:

  • Try to pick something that interests you 
  • Your topic should be supported by research and facts
  • Be flexible; if you can't find any sources on your topic, think about what other angles you could take
    (ask a librarian if you're stuck!)

*Every single topic that exists in the universe can become a research topic. You could research the importance of interest in education, or the potential problems with face recognition technology, or whether college campuses should restrict skateboard use, or just about anything else you can think of.

Start Broad

With your assignment in mind, think about a broad area of interest and start narrowing in from there. Your final research topic will be pretty specific, start by exploring a broad topic and thinking about how it could become more specific.

For instance, let's say you would like to write about cats. "Cats" is far too broad of a topic for anything less than a 10-volume encyclopedia, but it's a good start. Think about what specifically interests you within that huge topic: Lions? Cat shows? Stray cats?

Maybe you've narrowed your research interest to "housecats." That's more specific, but still very broad. Maybe you are curious about your pet cat's behavior. That's getting closer to a research topic. You start to read articles, websites, and the Wikipedia page about cat behavior, and you begin to notice that most of those articles mention that cats often knock over full cups of water. You picture your own cat doing that just this morning and wonder "yeah, why is that?" You're getting very close to a good research question! Maybe, you theorize, cats knock over full cups of water when they are thirsty.

Be Flexible

Once you've pinned down a research question (for instance: "Do cats knock over cups of water when they are thirsty?") start digging into the research. Look in some databases to see what has been researched on the topic. Most importantly, be flexible. If the research you're finding shows that cats have completely different reasons for knocking over cups of water, or if you find that no one has any idea why cats do this, come back to your topic and think about how you might adjust it according to what you've found. If you need help or have questions, ask a librarian!

Resources

When you have a vague idea of a topic but aren't sure how to narrow it, news and reference sources are very handy! Search for your topic idea (and related concepts or terms) in some of the resources below:

  • Wikipedia - A great place to get background information and important keywords about your topic. Click through some of the links to learn about specific aspects of your topic or see how your topic might relate to other topics. The references listed at the bottom can also provide useful information.
  • Google news - Particularly useful if your topic centers on a current event. Learn about recent updates or important trends related to your topic.
  • Reference Books - Search for your topic in the library catalog and see if you can find an encyclopedia (or another reference book) that can provide background information and point you toward specific aspects of a topic.