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The Research Process: Choosing a Topic

 

Choose a topic

If you have the option, choose a topic that you find inherently interesting. Should the topics be assigned, attempt to focus on a facet of that broader subject that piques your interest. It may be necessary to read a bit before settling on an initial topic.

 

Read

Engage in some preliminary reading. An initial web search is passable. Books and encyclopedias, even Wikipedia, can be good at this initial stage. Look at how the book or wiki breaks the topic down into sections or chapters.

Particularly, if you are not familiar with the details of the topic, broad generalized sources like reference sources, fact sheets, and overviews are a good starting point.

Start keeping track of the basics: who, what, when, where.

If you begin with a broad Google search, be critical of the sites you use. Try limiting your search to specific domains (.gov, .mil, .edu, .org). There is, of course, no absolute guarantee of veracity, but these sites tend to be more authoritative. You can force the domain by adding site:mil, site:gov, site:org, site:edu after your search terms.

 

Brainstorm

This is the time to think broadly and consider alternatives before settling on a final research question. Consider what you have learned through this initial information gathering phase and ask yourself:

  • What is the importance of the topic? 
  • Is there enough interest?
  • What are the main themes and concerns?
  • Is there enough existing research available?
  • Is there a more compelling aspect you could focus on instead?
  • What kinds of sources will you need? What organization(s) have an interest in gathering data on the subject?
  • Begin isolating important concepts, events, people, organizations of interest, authors/scholars/experts, etc.
  • How can you take the broad topic and break it down into sub-categories? Is there one facet you could explore effectively in the scope of your assignment?
  • Note differences in terminology and keep track of synonymous terms to use in database searches.
  • Is the topic too new? If it is unfolding in real time there will be news sources, but it will be difficult to find scholarly peer reviewed sources. This doesn't necessarily mean the topic is unfeasible, but you may need to take an historical approach or relate less current research to the problem at hand.