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Choose a Topic

Creating and questioning a research question.

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Choose a Topic

Sometimes choosing your topic may seem like the hardest part of a project. Your assignment will be your starting point, and the requirements will tell you a lot about what sorts of ideas will make an appropriate topic:

How long does your paper need to be?

  • A shorter paper will need a more narrowly focused idea, and a longer paper a broader one.

How much time do you have?

  • If you have several weeks, it’s likely your instructor is expecting you to do more research.

Do you need a a particular number or type of references?

  • Scholarly books and articles, for example, take time to write and publish, so topics focused narrowly on a recent event can be problematic.

There are several ways to help generate ideas for a paper if reviewing the requirements of your assignment leaves you stumped.

  • Talk to your instructor. They may have suggestions, or can give you examples of the sort of ideas that have made for good papers for other students.
  • Talk to your classmates.  Find out what ideas they’re considering. Talking to each other is a good way to brainstorm and to figure out what interests you.
  • Think about what you’re studying in other classes.  Are there interesting ways in which they might intersect with or relate to this class?
  • Browse newspapers (in print or online) or reference materials.  If you decide to use a current event as your starting point, keep in mind that it takes time to write scholarly articles and books on a subject. You may need to broaden your focus to have a meaty enough topic to write about.

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Attribution: UC Santa Cruz University Library

Narrow or Broaden Your Topic

When choosing a topic to research, there are a few key aspects to keep in mind:


  • Pick a topic you are interested in. If you aren't interested in it, you probably won't get very far in the research process.
  • Pick a topic that is of interest within your class. Try to make sure that you are focusing on your field or dicipline.

Broad vs. Narrow

  • It can be tempting to pick a topic that is broad and seems easy to research. Keep in mind that sometimes these broad topics come with hidden pitfalls, and can be difficult to research due to the amount of information about them.  For example, a topic that is too broad might be: "The Environment".  This is too broad because it encompasses everything in the natural world.
  • If you narrow down your topic too far, you may have a problem finding sources during your research. Try to make sure that your topic is broad enough to do research on. For example, a topic that is too narrow might be:  "The water quality of the river between San Antonio and Floresville"; while you might find a resource to answer this question you won't find enough sources to write a complete research paper.
  • To strike a happy medium between broad and narrow, try picking a specific angle, section, or aspect of a broad topic, or looking at how a narrow topic is influenced by other factors, or how it influences other factors in your field. An example might be: "What are the effects of agriculture on water quality in the United States?"

The "W" Questions

  • Who: Who are you talking about? Why should the reader know about them? Also, who is publishing the articles you are looking at? Who is doing the research on your topic?
  • Where: Where is your topic being researched? Where is your topic relevant? Where are people talking about your topic? Are there specific places where your topic takes place or influences?
  • When:  When did the majority of research on your topic get published (especially important in the sciences)? Are you in a position to compare historical and contemporary information?
  • Why: Why is your topic being researched? Is it an important, urgent issue? Why do you like your topic? Why do you want to do research on it? Why is it interesting to you?
  • How: How are you going to do your research? How will you phrase your thesis or research question? How will you focus your topic?

The "W" Questions-Plus - Ask questions that support theories and practice.

  • Which one..?
  • What if....?
  • Should...?
  • How did...?
  • Why do...?
  • What would happen if...?
  • What might...?
  • How would you feel if...?
  • What do you think...?

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Revised with permission:
University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Identify Keywords

Why do you need keywords?

Before you dive into your research, it’s useful to make a list of keywords that you will use as search terms. This can help you define your focus, and it will be a useful tool once you start searching, especially if your first search attempts don’t find much that’s useful.

Pull out key concepts

Once you have your topic, write it out as a short sentence or question and look at the different components that make up your statement. For example, the research statement "Is memory loss related to aging?" has two main concepts:

  1. memory loss
  2. aging

Start compiling a list of the key words that you will use as you search for your topic. List the words in groups by category. For example, the topic "Is memory loss related to aging?" might have key words that fall into two general categories:

  1. memory loss or amnesia or Alzheimer's
  2. aging or aged or elderly, seniors

Other words might relate to multiple aspects of your topic, or the topic as a whole.

Expand your list by thinking of related terms

Keep in mind that the way terms are used in some fields can be very different from standard everyday usage, and that popular sources such as newspapers or magazines may use different terms than scholarly writing. Reference sources are one good way to start generating lists of these terms for your topic. 

As you progress through your research project, keep adding new terms to your list as you find them. Subject headings and article abstracts are particularly good places to look.

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Attribution:  UC Santa Cruz University Library 

Search Examples from Tools

Tool: Library Discovery

Try an all-in-one search for topics to get articles, books, and more. Use quotation marks "for phrases" and the * to pick up alternate endings in your search string.

Library Discovery - internet addiction - search example

Credo search

Credo Search Screen image

CQ Researcher search

CQ Researcher Image

Credo Mind Map

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