Choosing an Effective Research Topic

Kevin Klipfel, Information Literacy Coordinator, California State University, Chico.
[email protected]
The First Step: Researching Your Topic
It may sound strange, but the first step when doing research
isn’t choosing a topic. You aren’t going to say, “Okay, my
topic is … birds. Let’s start searching!”
Rather, from an initial, and perhaps very general, research
topic area, you’re going to formulate a research question,
or set of questions, that you can then investigate further.
You’ll want to see what information is available to you, and
then start honing in on a manageable topic from there.
Thus, the first step is not to choose a topic, and then do
research. The first step is to research, more specifically,
what your topic even is.
What is Research?
Think of the research process as an occasion to look
up something that interests you. That’s really all it is.
The way that sophisticated researchers – like your
professors – choose their research topics is by
pursuing questions that they are passionate about.
There’s no reason that you can’t do this with your
schoolwork, too.
The challenge is to figure out how to make your
personal interests fit with the parameters of your
Narrowing Down Your Topic
You can take your initial starting point –a very basic
idea of what you might write about – and ask yourself:
What is it about this topic that interests me?
That’s what you should write about. From there, you can
begin to think about some questions you might be able
to research and investigate further.
And if you can’t think of anything that interests you
about the topic, don’t worry; you will be able to figure
something out.
The following chart will be useful for helping you figure
out a topic, even if you already have something in mind.
The Process of Topic Selection
Turning an Interest into a Topic
Talking with a librarian – a person who is trained in
helping you develop a good research topic –
would be a really good thing to do at this stage.
They’ll be able to help you figure out how to take
an interest you have and turn it into a manageable
research topic.
Now that we’ve talked about topic selection more
generally, let’s consider a concrete example.
Example: Health Sciences Topic
When you get your assignment from your professor,
the first thing you’ll need to do is interpret it to
figure out what you need to do. What are its
requirements? How can you research an authentic
interest from your paper prompt? Let’s suppose your
paper prompt is as follows:
The purpose of this assignment is to teach you to do research at the college level.
In this paper you will research one recent research finding (published within the last
5 years) relating to student health, and write a 3-5 page essay discussing your
findings, using well-researched sources as evidence. Use your research to make a
recommendation to the university health center about how they can use your
research to improve student services.
Interpreting Your Assignment
This paper requires you to perform at least the
following four research skills:
 1.
Select a researchable topic about a new scientific
breakthrough relating to student health.
 2. Find reliable information about that topic
 3. Synthesize your research into a 3-5 page paper.
 4. Apply your research to make an evidence-based
In this module we’ll focus primarily on the first skill,
selecting a researchable topic.
Developing Research Questions
Now when I read this topic, right away I started
thinking about how, in college, I just never got
enough sleep.
So I just thought well … maybe that’s what I’ll write
about … how college students don’t get enough
But how can I turn that into a researchable topic?
Let’s go back to our flow chart:
General idea
What about this topic interests
What is your potential topic?
I think what interests me about
this is like … why college students
don’t sleep very much and what
the consequences are for their
Lack of sleep in college students.
Tentative topic:
The causes of lack of sleep in
college students and its
consequences for academic
Now I’ve got a topic that I can begin searching in the library databases, one that I can keep
refining, depending on the sources I find available in the library. I’m off to a really great start.
I Don’t Know What To Write About!
But what if it seems like this health sciences topic just
holds no appeal to you whatsoever? What should
you do then?
For those of us who may have a harder time
figuring out how to make our schoolwork conform to
our personal interests, this portion of the flow chart
will be helpful:
I’m not sure
what I want
to write
Brainstorming Interests
What are three things you are passionate
Note: They do NOT have to be class-related
1. Philosophy
2. Fashion
3. Tennis
Here are some random personal interests of mine that I wrote down: I majored in
philosophy in college; I think too much about what I’m going to wear; and I like to
play tennis. But how can I turn any of these things into a research paper about health and
college students?!
I can just do the same exercise that we did before.
General idea
What about this topic interests
What is your potential topic?
Well … I was really interested in a
class I took on Zen in college. I
know it’s supposed to reduce
stress. Maybe I could write about
Tentative topic:
Whether meditation can help
college students reduce stress.
Now I’ve got a topic that I can begin searching in the library databases, one that I can keep
refining depending on the sources I find available in the library. And, if the research says meditation helps students reduce
stress, maybe my recommendation can be that the health center should offer meditation classes for stressed out students
during exam time.
General idea
What is your potential topic?
What about this topic interests
Well … lots of things. Thinking
about the paper requirements,
maybe I could think about … how
thinking about fashion impacts
college student's self images.
How on earth can I write about
this within the parameters of my
Tentative topic:
The impact of fashion and the
media on body image and selfesteem among college students.
There’s so many ways you could go here, depending on your interests. But you have enough
to go on to search the library for research on your topic. And your initial searches may
turn up something that interests you about this topic that you’d never even have initially thought of. That happens all the time.
Narrowing Down a Manageable Topic
Once you start looking at the research that’s out
there on your topic, you’ll be able to narrow down
and refine your topic even further, until you carve
out a topic that will work for you in the amount of
space you have to write your paper.
But remember to let your initial interest drive your
searching of the scholarly materials in the library:
this will help you not get lost when searching all the
stuff that’s out there, and help you remember what’s
Contact a Librarian
And if you’re having any trouble, don’t forget to
contact a librarian: we’re more than happy to help!
For questions about this module, or how to incorporate this module into specific courses, contact:
Kevin Klipfel, Information Literacy Coordinator, California State University, Chico. Contact: [email protected]