Choosing a Topic

1) Introduction
2) What Is Research?
3) Choosing a Topic
4) Determining Sources of Information
5) Developing a Search Strategy

6) Quiz

The rest of this tutorial will break down the research process into eight stages:

1.    Choose a subject or area of interest.

2.    Conduct a preliminary exploration of your subject.

3.    Narrow and shape your subject into a specific topic.

4.    Decide what type and amount of information is needed, how current it should be, and what types of sources will provide that information.

5.    Choose appropriate access tools, develop a search strategy for each tool, and conduct a systematic, planned search using each tool.

6.    Evaluate the citations your search found and select only the most relevant to your topic.

7.    Read, take notes, and evaluate the sources selected as relevant in Stage 6.

8.    Revise, refine, and repeat stages 1-7 as needed.

Letís take a look at each of these stages in detail.

Stage 1: Choose a subject or area of interest.
Every journey begins with a first step. The first step in the research process is to decide on a tentative subject or area of interest. At this point in your research, it is perfectly acceptable if you only have a very general idea of what you'd like to pursue. For example, you may decide you'd like to research illegal immigration, alcoholism, freedom of speech, computer networks, elementary education, or astronomy. Ultimately, though, each of these subjects is far too broad for a single research project. 

Even though you have started by thinking only of a general subject area, your goal is to narrow and focus your subject until you come up with a research topic, which is often stated in the form of a question. What is the difference between a subject and a topic? A subject is a broad area of interest from which a more specific topic can be chosen. A research topic, therefore, is a relatively narrow area of interest that can be thoroughly researched and discussed within the page-length guidelines given by your instructor. Examples of subjects and topics are given below:



Elementary education

"What are effective methods for teaching children how to read?"


"What are the effects of corporate ownership and media monopolies on news reporting and editorial freedom?"


"What are the latest speculations about the origins of the universe?"


"How does illegal immigration affect the United States' economy?"

Law/Political Science/Sociology

"What steps, if any, should the government take to censor pornography and hate speech on the Internet?"

Notice that each of the five research topic examples are open-ended questions, i.e. they are phrased in such a way that the researcher is deliberating different perspectives. This open-minded approach to all viewpoints is essential. If you begin your research with your conclusions and point of view already determined, you are not undertaking a true research project. You would very likely fall victim to research bias, a flawed approach in which you only consider information and evidence that supports your preconceived opinion and ignore information and evidence that does not. It is only after reading broadly, carefully gathering and evaluating several viewpoints and types of evidence that you can feel justified about reaching your own conclusions and expressing them in a concise thesis statement.

At this point you are merely choosing a broad subject area from which you will soon (during Stages 2 and 3 below) shape a precise research topic. If you are unable to come up with a broad subject area, here are some suggestions that may spark ideas:

  • Choose a subject area that interests you. The more curiosity you have about a subject, the more enthusiasm and motivation you'll bring to the project, which will in turn be reflected in the quality of your work.
  • Browse your textbook, lecture notes, and current magazines and newspapers to get ideas.
  • Ask your instructor or college librarian for help in choosing a subject.

Stage 2: Conduct a preliminary exploration of your subject.
Now that you have decided on a general subject area for your research, it is important to gain a sense of what your subject is all about and how much information exists on it. More precisely, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What discipline(s) or profession(s) fall under this subject area?
  • How has this subject developed or changed over time?
  • What key concepts and terms are used in this subject area?
  • What are some of the currently disputed or controversial questions concerning this subject?
  • Who are the key thinkers and researchers in this area?
  • What are some of the key publications in this subject area?

These questions can usually be answered by skimming through relevant articles in general and subject encyclopedias, research guides, annual review sources, and bibliographic guides. Preliminary reading in these types of sources will familiarize you with your subject area and help you gain a sense of its scope and complexity.

Once you have gained some background knowledge during this overview stage, you should be able to make significant progress toward formulating a central research question (Stage 3). Stage 2, therefore, is a critically important part of the research process because it is here that you are deciding exactly what aspect(s) of your subject you want to focus on. 

A final benefit of conducting a preliminary topic overview is that this early effort almost always provides you with a preliminary bibliography, i.e. a list of books, articles, reports, etc., that you may be able to cite in your paper.
Stage 3: Narrow and shape your subject into a specific topic.
At this stage of the process, you should be able to articulate at least a tentative topic for your research project. Beware of choosing a topic that is too narrow or too broad. A good rule of thumb to remember is this: If there are entire books written about your topic, it is too broad for a research paper. Conversely, if your research question can be fully answered in a few paragraphs, your topic is too limited. Also beware of choosing a topic that is too recent, obscure, or specialized for you to find published material in a variety of formats.

If, however, you initially choose a topic that is too narrow, too broad, or too esoteric, keep in mind that the process of zeroing in on an appropriate topic can sometimes continue well into the later stages of the research process. In other words, as you gather more information on your topic in Stages 5 through 7, you are free to modify your research topic if you discover through your reading that you have defined your topic too narrowly or too broadly.

As stated earlier, research topics are often stated in the form of a question. For example, "How does illegal immigration affect the United Statesí economy?" When phrasing your research topic, keep in mind it will usually include at least two aspects or main ideas, often referred to as concepts

For example, you may have chosen law as your general subject, in particular criminal justice. After some preliminary research and background reading, you might discover that one major area of debate is the death penalty and whether or not it provides a deterrent to violent crime. Your first concept, or main idea, is death penalty. The second concept is violent crime rates. The two (or often three) concepts of a research topic can often be phrased in relation to each other as follows:

The effect of (concept #1) on (concept #2)

The role of (concept #1) in (concept #2)

The use of (concept #1) in (concept #2)

Therefore, after conducting your preliminary topic exploration in the subject area of criminal justice and finding a particular focus that interests you, a plausible research topic might be: 

The effect of the death penalty on violent crime rates in the United States.
_______________(concept #1)______(concept #2)

If you reword this topic in the form of a question, it becomes: "How does the death penalty affect violent crime rates in the United States?"

When wording your research question, it is best to begin with the words How or Why. Research questions beginning with these words automatically suggest a somewhat broad investigation and substantive discussion, thus helping you avoid phrasing your topic too narrowly. On the other hand, avoid starting your research question with the words Who, Where, or When. These words tend to force your research into a limited aspect of your subject and you'll be unable to come up with enough material for your project. Research questions beginning with What can be acceptable or unacceptable, depending on how much scope and breadth the rest of the question implies.

Note the difference between these two research questions, each beginning with "What Ö.":

"What percentage of violent crimes are punished by the death penalty each year in the United States?"
(Too narrow for most research assignments)

"What is the effect of the death penalty on violent crime rates in the United States?"
(A broader research question appropriate for most research projects)

Note that this is essentially the same relatively broad question as our earlier phrasing of this topic, except that we started with the word "How". Either phrasing -- beginning the question with "How" or "What" -- is appropriately focused.

Go to Next Section