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Library DIY: Starting your Research

How do I know what to write about?

Choosing a Topic

Sometimes your professor will give you a specific topic or a list of possible topics to choose from.  In those cases, it is important that you follow the instructions and stay on the assigned topic.  If you have a different idea that is related or similar to the assigned topic, check with your professor first. 

If it is up to you to choose a topic, here are some things to consider when brainstorming a topic:

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy related to something you've discussed in class?
  • Did you read or see a news story recently that relates in some way to something you've discussed in class?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem, or interest that you would like to know more about?
  • Is there an aspect of class (an author, a method, an event, etc.) that you are interested in learning more about?

 

Remember, your topic can be a bit broader for a long paper or overview but should be more specific for a shorter paper or an in-depth analysis.

Creating an appropriately focused topic is a learning process, but here are some signs you’ve got it:

  • You can find (maybe with a librarian’s help) sufficient appropriate resources on your topic.
  • You can create a focused research question and hypothesis.
  • You can create a brief, well-organized outline that includes specific statements, evidence, and reasonable conclusions.

Signs your topic too broad

Your topic may be too broad if:

  • You can't write a specific, one-sentence research question
  • You are trying to answer too many questions all at once
  • Your brief outline includes multiple general statements 
  • There is no way to clearly write about the topic in the assigned page/word count
  • You are finding way too many results when you try to search WISE or a subject-specific database

How to narrow your topic

  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  For example, if your topic is human cloning, investigate government regulation of cloning, or religious beliefs/ethic around cloning.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  For example, on a topic in genetics, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's versus the 1990's.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species, or ethnic group.  For example, on a topic in genetics, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue. For example, if your topic concerns cloning, investigate cloning practices in Europe or the Middle East.

Signs your topic is too narrow

Your topic may be too narrow if:

  • It is hard to find any results when you search in WISE or a subject-specific database
  • Your research question has multiple, very specific parts
  • You have an "overview" or "history of" assignment, but you are only addressing a very specific point

If your topic is too narrow, you may have to remove limiters on time, place, population, etc.

 

Here are some examples of ways to broaden a research topic:

Original question: What was the ecological impact of the 2019 California Wildfires?

You might not be able to find anything specifically about the 2019 Wildfires. Instead, try:

  • What is the ecological impact of California Wildfires?
  • What has been the ecological impact of California Wildfires since 2000?
  • How have California Wildfires impacted native wildlife?

 

Original question: How does the parenting style of the Navajo impact childhood obesity rates?

Here you may have to decide what part of the question you’re really interested in.  Are you interested in parenting styles in general, or specifically the parenting styles of the Navajo? Are you interested in childhood obesity in general, or specifically how family relationships influence obesity?  Try some of these more general questions:

  • How can parenting style impact a child’s physical health?
  • How does family structure in indigenous communities differ from traditional American families?
  • How do the Navajo view family relationships?
  • What factors cause higher rates of obesity among Native Americans?
  • What factors influence childhood obesity rates in America?