Selecting & Refining a Research Topic
| Tips for Selecting a Topic | Refining a Research Topic
For many academic courses, a major portion of your grade will depend on the successful completion of a project requiring library research, and since you will probably devote a significant amount of time and effort to the project, it makes sense to select a rewarding topic. Here are a few tips for getting started:
Choose a topic that interests you personally!
- Your progress will be faster (and more fulfilling) if you are genuinely interested in your topic, and you may also learn something valuable in the process. Is there an event or problem in your life that's related to the course you are taking? By choosing a topic that has meaning in the wider context of your own life, you may find the answer to a question or solve a problem, in addition to advancing your studies. Don't overlook the importance of motivation because research often requires persistence, and you are more likely to keep looking if you really care about finding the answer.
Pick a topic no one else in your class is likely to be working on.
- The reason? Obvious. You will not have to compete with others for the available resources. There is nothing more exasperating than the discovery that all the books on the topic you have chosen are on loan to someone else! Selecting a topic that is unique may require a bit of originality, but your professor will probably appreciate reading a paper on an unusual topic.
Select a topic with a moderate amount of published information.
- If you choose a topic that is too broad, you may find more published information than you can assimilate in the available time. On the other hand, if you select a topic that is too specific, you may discover that not enough published information is available. When this happens, you can choose an entirely new topic or try to find a way to broaden the existing topic, in order to locate more resources. In assessing the amount of available information, remember that if your topic is current, the best place to start may be an examination of the periodical literature on the subject. If the topic deals with a subject that has arisen within the last year or two, insufficient time will have elapsed for books to be published about it, so periodical articles are likely to be the best bet.
Scan current magazines and journal for topic ideas.
- Try browsing recent issues of magazines and journals in the field you are studying to develop a feel for the research questions that are of current importance to scholars in the field. CQ Researcher is a very useful publication dealing with public policy issues. Each weekly issue examines a single topic in considerable depth, often with statistics and a bibliography at the end. CQ Researcher is available online on the WCSU Libraries' database page. Back issues are available in print on the Ready Reference shelf on the first floor of the Ruth Haas Library. Newspapers also tend to report current developments in public policy and can often spark interest in a particular issue.
Scan the subject headings in periodical indexes for ideas.
- Sometimes ideas for a topic can be found by scanning the subject headings listed in a printed periodical index such as Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature or Social Sciences Index or the New York Times Index. The number of citations listed under a heading in an index can also give you some idea of the volume of material published on the subject during the interval covered by the index. Ask the librarian at the Reference Desk on the first floor of the Haas Library for assistance in locating indexes relevant to your topic.
Be flexible - unforeseen circumstances may require a shift of focus.
- It is probable that in the course of a research project you will have to modify your topic at least once. Sometimes a topic that seems interesting at the beginning of a project turns out to be not so interesting once you learn more about the subject. Don't be afraid to rethink your research strategy! Too little published information may require that you broaden your topic. If too much information is available, you will have to find a way to narrow your topic. Sometimes, a key resource turns out to be unavailable at the critical moment. Flexibility will help you overcome such obstacles.
- Click here to learn more about how to plan your search strategy.
Get an early start.
- Procrastination can be hazardous! An early start will give you time to maneuver if you hit a snag and have to modify your research strategy. Be aware that if the materials you need are not available at the WCSU Libraries, you may have to rely on Inter-Campus Loan to locate them, which usually takes about 3-4 days for delivery, or on Interlibrary Loan, which can take up to two weeks for delivery, if the item is not available in digital format.
Don't be shy about talking with your instructor!
- For many students, choosing a workable topic is the most daunting hurdle in completing a research project successfully. If you cannot find a suitable topic, or if your preferred topic poses problems that seem insoluble, be sure to make an appointment to meet with your professor to discuss difficulties before investing too much time and effort in the project. Your instructor may suggest that you focus on a specific aspect of the topic to make the project more manageable, or recommend specific resources to facilitate your research. Remember that your professor has the advantage of many years of experience in the discipline your are studying.
The most common problem in library research arises when a student chooses a topic that is too broad and is faced with an overwhelming amount of published material. To make a broad topic more manageable, it is absolutely essential to focus on a narrower aspect of the subject. A few commonly used ways of narrowing a topic are:
- By date or time period
- By place (city, state, region, country, continent)
- By a specific characteristic of the person(s) involved (age, gender, ethnicity, education, marital status, etc.)
- By a specific viewpoint or critical approach to the topic
In the case of topics in literature, it may be possible to narrow by focusing on:
- A prominent theme in the literary work
- One or two of the main characters in the work
- A specific chapter, scene, or passage of the work
- An event in the author's life that may be related to a theme in the work
- A specific school or type of literary criticism
Sometimes students make the mistake of choosing a topic that is too narrow. If you search diligently and find very little published information, your topic may be too specific. If your topic has more than three main concepts, try dropping the least important of them, or consider replacing one of your main concepts with a broader term. If your research is in the field of literature, it may be possible to broaden the topic by doing a comparative study of two or more literary works by the same author (or by different authors).
Click here to learn more about how to plan your search strategy.
Please send your comments to Joan Reitz, Haas Instruction Librarian, Western Connecticut State University.
Last updated on August 25, 2005