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Research Fundamentals: Select a Topic

Selecting a Topic

Selecting a topic can be the most important and most difficult step of your research project. An ideal topic:

  1. Is interesting to you. You'll be spending some time with this topic, so pick something you're curious about.
  2. Meets the requirements of your assignment. Are there topics you cannot use? Is there a theme or subject area you should choose from? Does your instructor want to approve your topic first?
  3. Is researchable. Keep source requirements in mind when you select a topic. If your instructor requires you to use books, you may not be able to use a local current event, for example, as your research topic.

Choose your starting research topic

When you get an assignment where you need to choose your own topic, begin by considering topics covered in your course and textbooks/readings that fit the assignment. Then do some background research on one or more of those topics to get a bird's eye historical view. This will not only help you narrow your focus but equip you with the necessary vocabulary (names of people, places, and things related to the topic) to search the scholarly literature. 

Let's look at a brief example of how this narrowing process might look on paper:

  • Starting idea: cyberbullying

  • What things would you need to find out in order to write about this topic? What people (high school, middle school, or college students?), places (U.S., NYS, or a comparison between places?) and related concepts (internet trolls, state and federal laws, school policies, social media platforms, statistics, such as the number of people who experience or see it?) are connected to this idea?

  • Some background readings (click links to explore): Encyclopedia entry, Wikipedia, Gov't site

  • Ideas for narrowing the topic (freeform brainstorm - look at aspects of the topic from above that appeal to you - put into the form of questions): Cyberbullying and child development? Cyberbullying and post-traumatic stress? Is there a connection between those who troll on the internet and those who engage in cyberbullying? What policies have been put in place in NYS (or my local school district) to combat cyberbullying? What is the relationship, if any, between economic and or ethnic status and cyberbullying?

  • Locate more information sources related to the topic (books, journal articles, government reports, etc.). Read or skim them and begin to formulate a more concrete direction for your research to take. Take notes (see resources to the right). As your knowledge of the topic grows, ideas for what ultimate question(s) your paper will attempt to answer should start taking shape.


Material in this section is adapted from the Research Skills Tutorial by the Librarians at Empire State College has been made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Resources for Finding a Topic

If you're feeling stuck for a good idea, start with one of these resources. Simply browse around until a topic catches your attention!

Other brainstorming sources include the news, Wikipedia, your friends, and magazines - a topic is only ever as good as the work you put into researching it.

  • URL: https://library.cod.edu/fundamentals
  • Last Updated: Jul 1, 2021 10:03 PM
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