The first step to writing a research paper is deciding what topic to focus on. If your professor has assigned a topic, you already know what you are going to research, but if the choice is up to you, you may be wondering where to begin. This can be a challenging process, but don’t panic! Here are some tips that can help you pick a great research topic:
A good way to get started is by brainstorming ideas. The Purdue OWL (n.d.) guide to choosing a topic describes the brainstorming process: start thinking about the research project, set a timer, and write down all ideas that occur to you. Then, examine the list to look for patterns or trends among the topic ideas. Not all ideas that come up in brainstorming will be viable, but it is a good first step to start generating possibilities.
When brainstorming ideas for a class project such as a research paper, I often start by thinking about why I chose to take the class and what I was hoping to learn. Is there something I still have questions about or would like to explore further? It’s also helpful to think about what issues you are aware of in the subjects you are studying. Research is described by the ACRL (2016) as a process of “inquiry” driven by “problems or questions” in the researcher’s field; current problems, trends, issues, or unresolved questions often make excellent topics. Finally, it can help to think about what topics you find most interesting. A topic you are genuinely curious to learn more about will be easier to stay engaged with throughout the research process.
Once you have done some brainstorming, the next step is to evaluate each potential topic. The Purdue OWL (n.d.) recommends looking for trends or repeated ideas that suggest a strong interest in a particular area. It is also important to pay close attention to any guidelines given by your instructor, and to think about the scope of the paper. A long paper assigned as a final project will likely need a broader topic than a short paper to be completed in a few weeks.
The library has resources that can help! Be sure to check out the subject and course guides. If there is a guide for your course, it may include more guidance about choosing a topic, locating sources, or other helpful information. Once you have a couple of ideas for research topics, a good next step is to start searching for potential sources on the library website. Find out what books or articles are available, and reach out to Ask Us or your Subject Librarian if you have questions or need help with this process.
Finally, be prepared to keep developing your topic as you do your research. As the Purdue OWL (n.d.) explains, “an initial topic that you come up with may not be the exact topic about which you end up writing”. The ACRL (2016) likewise encourages students to “value persistence, adaptability, and flexibility” in the research process. As you learn more about your topic, you may discover new ideas or questions you were not previously aware of, which will take your paper in a new direction. You may also discover that your topic needs to be narrowed down or broadened because there is too much or too little information available. This is not a bad thing! However, it is a good reason to start your research early. That way, if you need to modify your topic, you can do so well before the due date.
What are your favorite strategies for choosing a research topic? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to contact Ask Us if you need help with your research.
ACRL. (2016). Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework
Purdue OWL. (n.d.) Choosing a Research Topic. Purdue University. https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/common_writing_assignments/research_papers/choosing_a_topic.html