Choosing a Topic

Choosing a good topic for a research paper can be challenging. This tutorial will give you some suggestions on how to choose your research topic.

Make sure you understand the assignment

Read the assignment requirements closely and ask your professor for clarification if anything is unclear.

Things to consider:

Most assignments have a length requirement. Knowing the minimum and/or maximum length of your finished assignment will help you decide on the scope (i.e., how broad or how narrow) of your research topic.

Think about what information you need to find and what types of sources will have that information. Then consider where to look for those types of sources. Many types of sources are available through the NU Library, while others might be available freely on the internet. The library staff can help you find sources in and out of the library.

Make sure you understand the type of research assignment and what you are being asked to do. Is your paper supposed to be descriptive? Analytical? Persuasive/argumentative? You will want to choose a topic that is well-suited to the type of assignment you are working on.

Choose a topic you are interested in

The research process can be complex and time-consuming. Choosing a topic that you are personally interested in will make the research more fun and engaging for you.

Not all of your interests will make good research topics, but you can consider things such as issues that have affected you personally, class discussions, and news stories.

Do background research

Collecting some background information on your topic might seem like extra work, but it can actually save you time in the long run.

Background research will help you:

You can collect background information by talking to your professor, consulting your textbook and other class readings, reading encyclopedia articles, and even searching Google. Just remember that this is only preliminary research to get a feel for your topic. You will probably not cite any of these sources in your final research paper.

Other helpful starting points for research can be found in the library’s Subject Guides, which contain recommended databases and other resources for specific subject areas.

Choose a topic that others have written about

Even if your assignment requires you to do original research (i.e., planning and executing your own research experiment or study), you will still need to draw upon existing research and information. Choosing a topic that has been previously studied will make it easier for you to find the information you need.

If your topic is too new, there may not be any research on it yet. Recent events and topics that have developed in the last couple of years may have been covered by websites and newspaper or magazine articles, but there will be very few (if any) scholarly books and articles available.

Adjust the focus of your topic

If your topic is too broad, you will be overwhelmed with information. If your topic is too narrow or too new, it may be difficult to find enough information to complete the assignment.

[Too Broad] The media’s impact on body image
[Better] The impact of fashion magazine images on the body image of teen girls

[Too Narrow] The impact of using role-playing as a teaching method on the test scores of Advanced Placement History students in Washington state
[Better] The effectiveness of using role-playing to teach high school students about U.S. History

[Too New] What does the media coverage of Richard Sherman’s interview after the 2014 NFC title Seahawks vs. 49ers game tell us about current race relations in the US?
[Better] What does media coverage of African-American professional athletes tell us about current race relations in the US?

Be flexible. After you have spent some time searching for information, you may decide to modify your topic, or change it altogether.

Ask your professor or a librarian for help if you get stuck or frustrated at any point.