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Selecting a Research Topic: Home

Sometimes, taking the first, crucial step in writing a research paper is deciding on a topic. This LibGuide is designed to give you some things to bear in mind as you get started. And don't forget, the library staff is here to help in case you get stuck

Getting Started

Topic Selection: From Whence Springs Our Inspiration?

Inspiration can spring from many sources. Browse the shelves of the library! Read the news or listen to news reports! Engage in discussions among your friends and fellow students. What are their concerns? What are projected trends? What are the issues that may touch us on a personal level?

  • “Cause and effect” may be one avenue to explore, and can be applied to such topics as, for example, “American Businesses and Overseas Relocation.” What lies behind it, and what are the repercussions? What is the effect upon the American worker? The consumer? What impact does it have on “Mom & Pop” establishments and startup businesses?

  • “How” might be useful to ask in helping to generating ideas for your topic, for example: "How has the archeology of pottery shaped our interpretation of pre-Columbian cultures?" Once put in this context, you can shape your research topic like this: Pre-Columbian Culture as Evidenced in Pottery.

Factors to Keep in Mind

Understanding what is being asked of you to do and knowing well what your instructor expects and knowing the parameters is the first step in the research process.

  • How many pages are required?
  • Is there a minimum number of sources you are required to use?
  • Are there certain types of resources your instructor wants you to use?
  • Are there ones to avoid?
  • What is the date due?
  • What style format should you use?

If any of the above is unclear to you, or is not provided, consult your syllabus or ASK your instructor!  They don’t mind making certain that you have a clear notion of what is expected. Office hours are a great way to discuss the requirements of the assignment outside of class.

5 Steps to Selecting a topic


You can narrow down a search by using "standardized subdivisions" - sub-categories that can be used with any topic.  Perhaps the most useful is to limit your topic geographically, such as "Poverty in NC" as an example, or within other regions, such as specific countries.

"Laws and Legislation" can also serve as a handy subdivision for finding laws that are significant to your topic, for example:  "Drunk Driving, NC, Laws."

Perhaps you are interested in a period of history - you can use that as well for many topics.  An example might be to combine Nutrition and Diet with an era such as Early Colonial America, or Medieval.

There are various ways to narrow down a cumbersome topic.  In addition to the subdivisions listed above you might consider combining it with other subject areas, such as Pollution and Climate Change.

And remember:  if you get stuck or are short of ideas, ask your friendly neighborhood librarian!


Additional Considerations

And finally...

It must be RESEARCHABLE. Writing a history of the combustion engine is not necessarily research. Writing how the combustion engine altered American society, influencing the behavior and lifestyles of families, or how the combustion engine altered warfare and its immediate impact – then this becomes a fair research topic.

It must be FLEXIBLE. You may have to broaden or narrow your original topic (see the section on search strategy development). Or sometimes you may have to modify your topic altogether. Be prepared to change direction if needed, but also make certain it meets with instructor approval!

There must be SUPPORTING RESOURCES - authoritative ones at that! Don’t select something that is too obscure, or something that is too personal or too close to the researcher. Something that is too obscure or esoteric might leave you hard-pressed to find supporting material.

It must be INTERESTING. It not only needs to fuel your interest and motivate you to do well, but it also needs to hold the focus of your reader, or at the very least, your instructor. If its boring to you… well count on it, it will be boring to your instructor. Selecting a topic should be a very creative process. You may want to discuss ideas with your instructor, or you may want to seek out a librarian. And certainly don’t overlook your friends and classmates for other ideas that may not have occurred to you.

• Finally, if you already know the answer to the question that the research topic represents, it is probably not a good idea to use it. Research is discovery. Don’t preclude the discovery aspect by choosing something already well-known to you!