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Selecting a Research Topic

This guide provides tips on how to select a topic for a research project and how to narrow it down.

Defining Scope

Once you decide on a research topic, you need to determine the scope of your topic.  The scope of a research topic is determined by how detailed you want your project to be.  This process will tell you if your topic is already too narrow or too broad.  Consider the following when determining the scope of your research topic (Leggett and Jackowski, 2012):

  • Analyzing the definition of your topic.
    • What is my topic about?
    • Can I define it clearly?
  • Comparing your topic to other subjects or fields.
    • What relationships does my topic have with other fields?
    • Are there correlations, causes, and/or effects between my topic and other topics?
  • Finding out how much research is available about your topic and locate potential gaps. 
    • If the amount of sources available is overwhelming, then your topic may be too broad.
    • If there are limited sources on your topic, then it may be too narrow.
  • The population, group, or objects that you are studying.
    • Is there anything specific about the group, population, or objects that I am studying that make them stand out from the others?
  • Any theories or principles that you plan to cover in your research project.
    • What have scholars already said about my topic and what have they concluded?
  • The geographical location you plan to cover (if applicable).
    • Does the geographical location impact my topic in any way?
  • The page length of your research project/paper.
    • The scope of a research topic depends on the page length requirements.  You might feel tempted to select a broader topic for a larger paper, but your paper will lack conciseness.

Tips for Identifying Scope

The following tips may help you identify the scope of your research topic (Center for Writing and Speaking, n.d.):

 

  • Be flexible.  You may have to abandon ideas that do not necessarily fit with the topic you have.  Furthermore, you may need to focus your research on one of the main ideas you had for your topic, rather than all of them.

 

  • You might be thinking "too big."  This is one of the main reasons why research topics are too broad.  This is especially true if you have to write a large paper (more than 5 pages).  The length may seem overwhelming, but choosing a big topic just to get the page length will make writing about the topic more difficult.

 

  • Define the key terms in your topic.  What do you mean by each term?  This could help you identify a more specific subtopic that you may want to cover.  Use your definitions of the key words to formulate a narrower topic.

 

  • Avoid vague or abstract key words in your topic, such as love, death, society, etc.  Are you referring to something specific within that term or category?  If not, then the topic is likely too broad.

 

The following handout from Agnes Scott College, titled "Scope: Narrowing Your Focus" may assist you in determining the scope of your research topic.