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Research Process

Identifying and Developing a Topic Steps

First, you will want to understand the difference between a subject and a topic.

subject is broad and general, such as Education or Sports or Film -- too big to be the focus of your research paper. You need to look within the broad subject area to find your topic. 

topic is more focused, more precise; it is a narrower subset of a subject. For the broad subject Education, your topic might be to investigate whether female students in all-girl schools perform better academically than their counterparts at co-ed schools. For the broad subject Sports, you might explore the controversy surrounding the use of Native American images and symbols as sports mascots.

1. Choose a subject area that interests you and that will interest the readers.

  • Try to avoid topics that are overly used such as abortion or gun control.
  • It is important to choose a topic that is academic in nature - something that people will be doing research on. In other words, pick a topic that has an aspect that you can make an argument about and one that other people feel passionate enough to argue about or to do research on (otherwise you'll have a hard time finding sources).

2. Do some background research on any subjects that you are interested in using encyclopedias and websites.

  • This will provide you with an overview so that you gain a better understanding of the subject area and you can see what issues are related.
  • Background research can also help you decide what way to focus on a subject area. For example, you might be interested in the subject of social media. If you look social media up in an encyclopedia it might talk about issues related to it such as privacy or bullying. You then might decide to focus on the topic of social media and privacy.

3. It is a good idea to state your topic in the form of a question to stay focused on what it is that you are trying to explain or prove. For example, if you want to do research on advertising and body image among teenage girls, you might ask:

                      What impact does advertising have on the body image of teenage girls?

4. When you come up with a topic, choose the main concepts in your research question (for the question above it would be "advertising", "body image", and "teenage girls") and do an initial search with them in the Library catalog or databases. If you are getting way too many hits, you might need to narrow your topic more. If you are not getting enough hits, you might need to broaden your topic.

Some common pitfalls include choosing a topic that is too:

                      broad                          narrow                          recent                        local

You want a manageable topic that is of enduring interest to you - and to others.

5. Once you are sure you have a manageable topic that is interesting and that has enough research out there you can use in your paper, create a thesis statement. This will be an answer to your research question or a statement that explains the purpose of your research.

This video is really helpful in explaining how to create a really good research question:

Narrowing or Broadening Your Topic

Many times your search will yield too many or too few records.

If you get too many hits, you may need to narrow your focus. You can narrow your topic by adding additional restrictions. Some of the ways in which a topic can be narrowed are by limiting it to a:

  • particular time period or era (e.g., 21st century; the Great Depression)
  • specific population or group (e.g., teenagers; Asian-American women)
  • geographic region (e.g., Southwest; Latin America)
  • specific discipline or focus such as legal, economic, historical ...

If you get too few hits, you may need to broaden your focus. You can broaden your topic by choosing a less specific or alternative time period, population, geographic area, or discipline - or by eliminating that limit altogether. You can also broaden a topic by choosing a more general term - e.g., performance enhancing drugs rather than anabolic steroids.