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Selecting a Topic

Selecting a Topic

Developing a good topic for research is a specific skill.  These are useful steps to follow:

  1. Brainstorm for ideas
  2. Choose a topic that will enable you to read and understand the literature
  3. Check that the topic is manageable and that material is available
  4. Make a list of key words
  5. Be flexible
  6. Define your topic as a focused research question
  7. Research and read more about your topic
  8. Form a thesis statement

Steps 1-8

Step 1: Brainstorm for ideas

Start a list or concept map of key words or ideas that interest you. Can you use these terms to form a more focused research topic?  Caution! Watch out for overused or played-out ideas.  Look for a slightly different angle to explore. hint: there are several online concept mapping apps you might like to try like

Step 2: Check the General Background Information

  • Sometimes a reference book or encyclopedia will give you a broad summary of the idea you are thinking about.  Often  this overview will include the broader, narrower, or related issues. This is a good way to hunt for the specific words that are used in relation to your topic.
  • No luck finding anything on your topic? Try using broader terms.
  • Check current magazine, journal or newspaper articles on your topic.

Step 3: Focus in on Your Topic

A topic that is too broad or too narrow will be very difficult to research. Topics that include many separate aspects need to be broken down into smaller sets.  How could the following question be efficiently or effectively searched?

In what ways does the economy contribute to culture, politics and society? 

To narrow a broad topic such as "the economy"  limit your topic:

  • by geographical area - if you start with a specific location and can't find anything you might need to go bigger.
  • by culture -
  • by time frame
  • by discipline  Example: How does economic awareness effect business practices today?
  • by population group  Example: What are the effects of latest income tax changes on on senior citizens?

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
  • Look for them in when reading background information
  • Find broader and narrower terms, synonyms, key concepts for key words to widen your search capabilities

Make note of these words and use them later when searching databases and catalogs

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.

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 = Fracking, Environment, Oil industry
Research Question = Is fracking dangerous for the environment? Is it good for the oil industry?
Focused Research Question = What aspects of fracking technology used in the gas and oil industry are dangerous?

Step 7: Research and Read More About Your Topic

Use the key words you have gathered to research in Summon, the Library Catalog or specific article databases. Find more information to help you 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 could be the answer to your research question or a way to 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. For example, a thesis statement could be: 

The development of fracking technology is a truly "disruptive technology" that is currently back in the spotlight for a second time.  Current low oil and gas prices are behind the interest that producers have in revisiting and reworking old oil wells.

The title of your paper may not be exactly the same as your research question or your thesis statement, but the title should  convey the focus, purpose and meaning of your research.

For example, a title could be: Fracking: Will low oil prices renew interest despite the risks?