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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.

Why should I narrow my research topic?

If you have a need to conduct research for a course at any level, you should understand the significance of narrowing down your research topic.  Reasons for narrowing down a research topic are:

  • The field you are studying is much too broad, so you cannot formulate a research question or hypothesis from it.
  • You are not quite sure what you want to cover in your research project/paper.
  • You feel overwhelmed by the research topic you have already selected.
  • Your assignment requires you to research a topic that has not yet been covered (research gap).

Considerations

Before you begin your search for a research topic, there are some things to consider that could impact the topic you choose:

  • Review the assignment's instructions:
    • In what field of study is your assignment?  In what course is your project?
    • Does your assignment require you to research a specific topic within a particular discipline?
    • How narrow or broad does your topic need to be?
  • Identify your audience:
    • Who will be reading your paper?
    • Will you be presenting your project to an audience?
  • Identify the type/style of paper:
    • What type of paper are you writing?  This may determine the scope of your topic.

Topic Selection Process

The process of narrowing down a research topic can be illustrated by the image below ("Choosing & Using Sources," 2016).  It illustrates the process of thinking about all potential research topics, then narrowing it down to a specific research question.  This diagram can assist you in determining your topic because it illustrates how all possible topics and subjects transform into your final research topic.  It is also recommended that you refer to your assignment instructions for guidance on topic selection.

A Venn diagram of concentric circles to show narrowing from all possible topics to a specific research question.

 

All possible topics: Represents all potential topics in your field of discipline.  This is often overwhelming, so it is typical to rule out irrelevant topics to create a "smaller" pool of topics.

Assigned topic: This is a combination of determining topics that are interesting to you and that fulfill your assignment requirements.  You might have more than one topic, so you may need to narrow them down further.

Topic narrowed by initial exploration: This results from conducting preliminary research on your assigned topic(s).  During this process, you will learn more about the topics you are considering.  From there, you can determine if the topic is still of interest.

Topic narrowed to research question(s): From the information you have learned in your preliminary research, you formulate a research question that identifies what your paper/project will attempt to discover.

The video below from Wilsey Library demonstrates how to narrow down a general research topic.