Selecting and Exploring a Topic

Wed. Sep. 28, 2016

Whether you've been assigned a specific topic or are allowed to select your own, you will need to develop this topic into something interesting to you and suitable for an academic research paper. Here are some effective methods for developing your research topic.

1) Look at your course syllabus. Very often, your syllabus will outline what the course will cover each week. This includes major themes you’ll be exploring and the readings you’ll be asked to do. Which weeks look the most interesting? Although this likely won’t be your final research topic, it’s an excellent starting point.

Example Syllabus

2) Consider the chapters in your textbook, or the assigned readings from your professor. It's a good idea to try building off of what's been covered in class. How does the text divide the subject and which themes are linked together?

Example Course Readings

3) Talk to your professor. Even though it can feel a bit intimidating, visiting your professor during office hours to discuss your project is a really good idea. You'll get a clearer idea of what topics to think about, which sources are suitable, and what his or her expectations are for your writing.

4) Consider different methods of limiting your scope. Most broad topics can be broken down into different geographic regions, demographic characteristics, or historical periods. Consider which of these limits could be feasible for you, but remain flexible in case you find yourself at a dead-end.

Example of Limits

5) Consult reference sources. Dictionaries and encyclopedias will provide you with the background information necessary to go forward with your topic. Many students make the mistake of jumping immediately into the advanced literature without first understanding the basic structure of their topic. The library has general and subject specific reference sources for you to use. Try to avoid being too specific in your initial search; remember that a good article about your topic will be found in a reference source that covers the broader subject area.

Example Reference Sources

6) Find an existing literature review. Other researchers have likely explored your topic to some degree already. Read their reviews of previous literature and note the sources they've consulted. Some search tools will have an option to limit your search to "Reviews", others will require you to use keyword searching to limit your sources to literature reviews.

Example Literature Review