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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.

Topic Selection Strategies

In many cases, writers have a general idea of what they might want to research for a project.  However, it is normal to not know where to begin searching for a research topic.  There are several ways you can arrive at a topic, and you can use any combination of these helpful strategies (Leggett and Jackowski, 2012).

  • Pre-writing techniques such as ideation (brainstorming), free writing, and clustering (which can be a part of brainstorming) stimulate the flow of ideas.
  • Find background information by conducting web and/or database searches.  Options include search engines like Google, DragonQuest, or databases in our A-Z list.  We also have a guide on locating background information, which is included below.  Background information is crucial to locating topics that will not only peak your interest, but also fulfill your assignment requirements.   EBSCO's Research Starters can help you with this process by providing general information on different topics.
  • Ask peers or classmates for suggestions.  You can also approach your instructor for assistance in locating a topic.
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Questions to Consider

While pre-writing techniques can help you identify a general topic for your research, there are still some key questions to ask yourself while formulating your topic or engaging in pre-writing techniques (Leggett and Jackowski, 2012):

  • What subjects interest you?  What topics interest you in the field?
  • Do you have a strong opinion about a particular topic or issue?
  • Was their an experience you had that triggered your particular interest in a topic?
  • Is there a problem within a specific field that you would like to solve, but need data to do so?
  • What has already been done or said about the topic you are considering?
  • If someone has already written about your topic, can you spin it a different way or change the perspective to make it unique (Sloan, 2005)?

These questions will review your ideas for their potential as a research topic.  From here, you may need to broaden or narrow down the topic (scope).

Ideation (Brainstorming) & Clustering

What is Brainstorming?

Brainstorming, or ideation, is the process of generating ideas about a topic.

The following image represents one example of the many options or generating ideas. Webbing/clustering can lead to large graphs, sometimes spanning several pages.*

In this case, the main topic is "key influences," and it is listed in the center of the web. The student divided what they believe to be their key influences into four categories- work life, friends, family, and media. From there, the student thought of different elements in each category. 

Image shows "key influences" in the center in a spiderweb design leading to four primary ideas: work life, family, friends, and media. Each of those four factors leads to another part of the web where additional sub-categories are listed.

 

*Librarian tip: Post-it notes on a flat surface (wall, table, poster board) can help you brainstorm and rearrange ideas easily without the need for an eraser!


Brainstorming is part of the planning phase of the writing process. To read more about the elements of the writing process, we recommend the following resource:

Free Writing

Free writing is when you select a general topic or subject and write anything you know about it for a set period of time.  You do not need to worry about grammar, sentence structure, or writing mechanics because the activity is designed to keep your ideas flowing.  When you are finished writing, look at what you wrote and identify what stands out to you.  Are their specific words that you used several times?  Is there a common theme throughout the document?  Asking yourself these questions can help you identify an area of interest about a subject, and kickstart potential new ideas for your research.

Library Databases

These library provided databases are your best bets for general information! Again, make sure you know your university credentials to utilize these resources off-campus.


Also, here is a list of reference databases that may be helpful in starting your research.

Web Resources

These free web resources may also prove useful.