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Research Process

Identify & Develop a Topic

First, you will want to understand the difference between a subject and a topic. A 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.  A topic is more focused, more precise; it is a narrower subset of a subject. For example:

  • 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.

Here are some tips to help you develop a manageable and interesting topic:

  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. 
  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. 
  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

  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 (4:18 minutes) is really helpful in explaining similar steps to create a good research question:

As previously stated, background research on a subject will help you gain a better understanding of the topic. Background research can also help see how your idea relates to broader, narrower, and related issues and  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.

Some places to find background information:

  • Encyclopedias and reference books
  • Credible websites
  • Library databases

Try any of the library databases below to explore your topic. Once you have enough background information you can begin refining your topic. If you're having trouble finding information on your topic, ask a librarian or your instructor for help.

Be prepared to be flexible! It is common to modify your topic during the research process. You may find too much information and need to narrow your focus, or too little information 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 completely, but instead decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to help you narrow your topic:

  • Is there a specific person, population, or group I want to focus on? (e.g. Women, African American/Black Community, Teenagers, LDS...)
  • Is there a particular place/geographic region I want to focus on? (e.g. southwest, Pacific Islands, Latin America)
  • Is there a certain time period or era I would like to focus on? (e.g. 20th century; the Harlem Renaissance; Middle Ages)
  • Is there a viewpoint I would like to focus on? (e.g. Latinx, LGBTQ Community, Elderly)

If you get too few hits, you may need to broaden your focus. You can broaden your topic by choosing a less specific 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., Social Media rather than Facebook or Indigenous Peoples rather than Navajo.

View this video (3:15 minutes) for an overview of focusing your topic: