Determining a Research Topic
Determine whether you need to come up with your own topic. In many cases, your research topic will be assigned to you by your instructor. If this is true for you, you can simply move on the the next stage in the process.However, if your assignment’s exact topic is an open one, you will need to take some time to figure out the topic of your research paper.
Choose a topic that fits the assignment parameters. Even if the topic is an open one, you will still likely have some limitations on the topic you choose.Your topic must be relevant to the class you are taking and to the specific assignment you were given. For example, your topic might need to be related to something that was covered in your lecture. Or your topic might need to have something to do with the French Revolution. Make sure that you understand what is being asked of you so that your research topic is relevant.
For example, your microbiology professor will not want a terrific research paper on the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Similarly, an American literature instructor who asked you to write about F. Scott Fitzgerald will not be happy if you hand in an essay about Jeff van der Meer. Stay focused and relevant.
Make a list of relevant topics that are interesting to you. Once you have understood the assignment’s parameters, you can begin brainstorming possible topics that fit those parameters. It is possible that a great topic will hit you instantly. It is more likely, however, that you will need to take some time to brainstorm before settling on your specific topic. Be sure that your potential topics are all ones that you find interesting: you will have to spend a lot of time researching this subject, and the task will be more pleasant if you enjoy it. In order to brainstorm interesting topics, you can:
Glance through your course texts and lecture notes. Where there any topics that grabbed your attention? Did you highlight any passages in your book because you wanted to learn more? These might be excellent cues to point you to a topic.
Consider which specific reading assignments you have enjoyed the most so far. They might lead you to a topic.
Have a conversation with a classmate about your course. Talk about what excites you (or what doesn’t excite you), and use that as a jumping-off point.
Settle on a tentative topic. After you have made your list of exciting topics, take a moment to look at them. Are there any that jump out at you? Do you notice any patterns? For example, if half of your list has to do with weaponry of the First World War, that is a good indication that that is where your interests lie. Other things to consider as you choose a tentative topic include:
Its relevance to the assignment. Does it fit all assignment parameters?
The amount of research material available on the topic. You can be pretty sure that there is a wealth of published information available about medieval French monasteries. However, there might not be a lot of published material available about the way Catholic priests in Cleveland respond to rap music.
How narrow your research topic must be. Some research paper assignments are very specific: for example, you might be asked to research the history of a single object (like the Frisbee). Other kinds of research paper assignments are quite broad, such as if you are asked to survey the way women are involved in warfare. It helps if your topic is narrow enough that you will not be completely overwhelmed by information but broad enough to allow you to engage meaningfully with your resources.For example, you will not be able to write a good 10-page paper on the topic of “World War II.” That is too broad and overwhelming. You might, however, be able to write a good 10-page paper on “How Chicago’s Newspapers Depicted World War II.”
Read lightly about the tentative topic for 1-2 hours. Before you have settled on a definite topic, it does not make sense for you to read research materials in any kind of depth. That would be a waste of time. However, it is helpful to do just a little bit of light reading on your topic to make sure that it is viable. You might discover that your tentative topic is too broad or too narrow, or you might discover that your tentative topic will not allow you to make a meaningful contribution. After reading about your tentative topic, you can:
Decide that the tentative topic is viable and pursue it
Decide that your tentative topic requires some tweaking
Decide that this topic is completely unviable, and test out another tentative topic from your list
Run your research topic by your instructor. Many instructors and teaching assistants are happy to provide suggestions to those writing research papers. If you are not certain whether your topic is a good one, one of your instructors might be able to guide you. Your instructor will likely have office hours for you to attend, which will allow you to talk about your paper ideas.
It is also a good idea to talk to your instructors early in the writing process so that you can take their advice about where to look for resources or how to structure your paper.
Remember to be prepared and articulate when you meet with an instructor about your paper topic. They will want you to have thought carefully about your topic and your ideas before meeting with them.