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7.2: Choose a Topic

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    What Are Potential Research Topics?

    The first step in writing a research paper is to understand your professor's requirements for the project. The next step is to choose a topic and then develop research questions and a working thesis. It’s important to set aside adequate time for this part of the process. Fully exploring ideas will help you build a solid foundation for your paper. Choose a topic that fulfills the assignment requirements and fits the assignment’s purpose and audience. If you choose your topic hastily, you may later find it difficult to work with your topic. By taking your time and choosing carefully, you can ensure that this assignment is not only challenging but also rewarding.

    Choosing a topic that genuinely interests you is also crucial. You instructor may provide a list of suggested topics or ask you to develop a topic on your own. You may find inspiration for topic ideas in your everyday life, by browsing magazines, or looking at lists of topics or themes in online databases such as CQ Researcher Online, Issues and Controversies, or Opposing Viewpoints in Context to help you brainstorm your topic.

    You may benefit from identifying several possibilities before committing to one idea. Building a list of potential topics will help you to identify additional, related topics. For example, a student studying healthcare administration assigned to write a research paper on current debates about healthy living for an introductory course must decide which specific issue to focus on. A brainstormed list might include:

    • Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) in the news
    • Sexual education programs
    • Hollywood and eating disorders
    • Americans’ access to public health information
    • Medial portrayals of health care reform
    • Depictions of drugs on television
    • The effect of the Internet on mental health
    • Popularized diets (such as low-carbohydrate diets)
    • Fear of pandemics (bird flu, H1N1, SARS, COVID)
    • Electronic entertainment and obesity
    • Advertisements for prescription drugs
    • Public education and disease prevention

    Focusing on a Topic

    After identifying potential topics, you will need to evaluate your list and choose one topic to pursue as the focus of your research paper. Discussing your ideas with your instructor, peers, and tutors will help ensure that you choose a manageable topic that fits the requirements of the assignment. The following are some questions to consider:

    • Will you be able to find enough information about the topic?
    • Can you take an arguable position on the topic?
    • Is the topic too broad or too narrow for the scope of the assignment? If so, can you modify the topic so it is more manageable?

    You will need to narrow your topic so you can formulate a concise, manageable thesis about it. Most writers find that the topics they listed during brainstorming or idea mapping are broad—too broad for the scope of the assignment. Working with an overly broad topic, such as sexual education programs or popularized diets, can be frustrating and overwhelming. Each topic has so many facets that it would be impossible to cover them all in a college research paper. However, more specific choices, such as the pros and cons of sexual education in kids’ television programs or the physical effects of the South Beach diet, are specific enough to write about without being so narrow that they can’t sustain an entire research paper. A good research paper provides focused, in-depth information and analysis. If your topic is too broad, you will find it difficult to do more than skim the surface when you research it and write about it. To narrow your focus, explore your topic in writing. Also, conduct preliminary research, including discussing the topic with others.

    One way to focus on a topic is by conducting preliminary research. Find out what people are saying about your topic in online newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Keep in mind that the reliability of online sources varies greatly. In this exploratory phase of your research, you do not need to evaluate sources as closely as you will later; however, use common sense to find objective sources as you refine your paper topic. If you are writing a research paper for a specialized course, look back through your notes and course activities to identify potential topics. Librarians and instructors can help you to determine if there are enough sources available on your topic, or if there are so many sources that it would be wise to narrow your topic further.

    Determining Paths of Inquiry

    Your freewriting and preliminary research can help you choose a focused, manageable topic for your research paper. To work with your topic successfully, you will need to determine what exactly you want to learn about it—and what you want to say about it. Before you begin conducting in-depth research, you will further define your focus by developing research questions and a working thesis.

    By forming research questions about your topic, you are setting a goal for your research. Determine your main question—the primary focus of your paper—and several sub-questions that you will need to research in more depth to answer your main question. Your main research question should be substantial enough to form the guiding principle of your paper—but focused enough to guide your research. A strong research question requires you not only to find information but also to put together different pieces of information, interpret and analyze them, and figure out what you think. As you consider potential research questions, ask yourself whether they would be too hard or too easy to answer. Review the results of your prewriting, and skim through your preliminary research. From these, write both simple, factual questions and more complex questions that would require analysis and interpretation to answer.

    A student studying health administration used preliminary research to decide on the topic of low-carbohydrate diets and then brainstormed questions to focus the research. Notice that the main research question has no obvious, straightforward answer. The student will need to research sub-questions, which address narrower topics, to answer the main question.

    Topic: Low-carbohydrate diets

    Main question: Are low-carbohydrate diets as effective as they have been portrayed to be by media sources?


    • Who can benefit from following a low-carbohydrate diet?
    • What are the supposed advantages to following a low-carbohydrate diet?
    • When did low-carbohydrate diets become a ‘hot’ topic in the media?
    • Where do average consumers get information about diet and nutrition?
    • Why has the low-carb approach received so much media attention?
    • How do low-carb diets work?

    A working thesis concisely states a writer’s initial answer to the main research question. It does not merely state a fact or present a subjective opinion. Instead, it expresses a debatable idea or claim that you hope to prove through research. Your working thesis is called a working thesis for a reason: it is subject to modification. You may adapt your thinking in light of your research findings. Let your working thesis serve as a guide to your research, but do not hesitate to change your path as you learn about your topic.

    One way to determine your working thesis is to consider how you would complete statements that begin, “I believe…” or “My opinion is…”. These first-person phrases are useful starting points even though you may eventually omit them from sentences in your research paper. Generally, formal research papers use an assertive, objective voice and therefore do not include first-person pronouns, but there is no rule against it.

    The student developed a working thesis statement, below, which states a tentative answer to the research question and will be argued in the paper.

    Main research question: Are low-carb diets as effective as they have sometimes been portrayed to be by the mass media?

    Working thesis statement: Low-carb diets do not live up to the media hype surrounding them.

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