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The Research Process: A Step-By-Step Guide: Step 1: Develop a Topic

This guide walks you through the steps of the research process.

Steps to Selecting a Topic

Developing a good research question can sometimes be the most difficult part of the research process. If you are struggling, follow the links below.


Selecting a Topic

General Tips for Selecting a Paper Topic

The Situation: When do These Tips Apply?

So, you need to select a paper topic. No matter what the paper is on, no matter what the course is about, following these tips will help you select a winning topic—the kind that's more likely to get a high grade. These tips are universal—you will find that they apply to almost any writing assignment.

Always start by reading, re-reading, and again re-reading the paper instructions. If your topic does not conform with the assignment, you will lose points. When in doubt, ask in advance. If you ask, most professors will gladly approve a slightly off-topic paper as long as you are excited about it. (Unless, of course, you give the impression that you want to switch topics merely because it will be easier for you.)

The Purpose: Why Teachers Assign Papers

Your paper should demonstrate three things:

  • That you have been in class,
  • That you have done the readings, and
  • That you have thought independently about your chosen topic while performing your own research.

Students often forget about that third bullet. Professor don't assign papers merely to assess your rote memorization of course topics. They also want you to analyze those topics and identify new insights, ideas that the professor (and the textbooks) didn't already tell you.

Think about it from the professor's perspective. Grading a large stack of term papers can be extremely boring—especially if all the papers merely contain a rote recitation of what was said in class or in the readings. You will always get a much higher grade if you write an interesting paper (i.e. one that contains novel ideas that you came up with).

The Tips: Characteristics of a Good Topic

What sort of topic will help you meet these three objectives most effectively? A narrow, unique, interesting one. Consider each of these in turn.


Your paper should be on a narrow topic that you can address in depth. For example, in a class on public policy, don't try to tackle land use or energy as a whole—look at the debate surrounding a specific piece of legislation, or the arguments for and against a specific nuclear power plant under consideration. Likewise, in a class on political behavior, don't try to address everything about voting—focus on turnout, and argue that mandatory voting legislation is a good or a bad idea.

The definition of "narrow" will change from one course to another, and from one assignment to another. But take time to understand the assignment so that you do not pick an overly broad topic. If your topic is too broad, it will either lack detail or run long, either of which will probably cost you points.

Here's an important caution, thought: Though you will be looking at a narrow issue in depth, you do need to relate it back to broader topics, especially when framing the issue and explaining the issue's historical evolution. Remember the three bullets from above? Your focus on a narrow topic shows us that you have thought independently and come up with new insights; that's the third bullet. But by also relating your narrow topic to broader issues, you demonstrate that you were in class and understand the readings; that's the first two bullets. Generally, you will start broad (in your introduction) and rapidly narrow toward your specific topic.


If your paper is one of twenty papers on roughly the same topic, then it will be harder to get a good grade because there will be nineteen other papers for the professor to compare your paper to. It's hard to impress your professor with your keen intellect if nineteen other students already had the same insights as you.

Select something unique (but relevant to the assignment). This probably means that you should avoid selecting a topic that we discuss in depth during class. This does not mean that you cannot write on major course topics; in fact, usually professors ask that you do write on major topics (don't forget the first two bullet points). But it does mean that you should narrow your topic to a unique subtopic that you can discuss in depth.

Again, a caution: Don't get so caught up looking for a unique topic that you drift from the assignment's purpose. That's not what I'm saying. I'm merely recommending that you try to avoid the most popular topics.


You should be personally interested in your topic. If you are bored by it, you will write in a boring style, your professor will get bored while reading it, and your grade will suffer.

If you find your topic interesting, your professor will find your paper interesting.


All rights reserved. ©2005-2010 Adam R Brown. Used with permission of the author.

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Michele Nicole Johnson
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College of Coastal Georgia