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I need help choosing a topic

How do you decide what to write about when confronted with a research paper? You want a focused topic that will make a good paper.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. Read it closely. Ask your professor for feedback if you are unsure.

  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you. It may seem obvious, but this will make the research process more fun and engaging for you.

  • Choose a topic others have written about. You will find far more resources this way.

  • Consider the scope of your topic. If your topic is too broad it may be hard to find information that is focused and relevant; if your topic is too narrow it may be hard to find any information at all.

  Graphic showing how to go from broad to narrow, and narrow to broad  


Here's one strategy for developing a research topic once you have a broad topic in mind:

  • Background research can help you develop your topic. This will help you learn more about your topic and may also help you hone or change it in more appropriate ways. Though this seems like extra work, it is actually a vital, time-saving step. Knowing more about your topic's background can only help you develop a more effective topic, and therefore, research paper.

  • Brainstorm concepts. Once you think of a broad topic that interests you, try to brainstorm all of the words or concepts you can that might be related to that topic. For example, if your topic is "polar bears," you might think of the following words and topics in association: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, and environmental icon. It may help to write this process down.

  • Develop a research question. Once you have come up with a broad research topic and done some background research, you may want to develop a research question or a question you're going to answer in your research paper by doing in-depth research.

  • What's your general approach to the topic? Think about some general approaches that may help you further develop your topic: your research could use a historical angle, focusing on a particular time period; a geographical angle, focusing on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focusing on a particular group of people.

  • Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you do more in-depth research (like looking for scholarly articles, books, and other sources to include in your paper), you can and probably will modify or refine your topic based on what you find.

  • Research is a dynamic process. Don't be afraid to discover new things and modify or refine your topic.

The topic development process will help you to develop your thesis, which is essentially your proposed answer to your research question. You will then be ready to use the sources you've found and find more sources in order to support that thesis or to answer your research question.

Here's an example of how the topic development process above can lead you to a thesis:

 Graphic of the topic development process as a flow chart

Resources that can help you develop your topic:

  • Your instructor, SJSU librarians, course readings, class notes, Wikipedia, and Google can all be helpful in terms of getting ideas for broad topics for further, in-depth research using more scholarly resources.

  • Research Guides created by subject librarians are great for helping you choose where to begin your research. These online guides can help you identify encyclopedias, books, databases, and other materials that will help you get started with research in your chosen academic field.

  • Library resources like CQ Researcher and subject-specific encyclopedias can help you come up with topic ideas because they provide great overviews and introductions to topics. You can find links to these kinds of resources in the Research Guides mentioned above. These will probably not be scholarly sources you can use in your paper, but they may lead you to more in-depth, scholarly resources that you will want to use in your paper.