The Research Process: Step 2

Choose a Topic

Choosing a topic for your research paper can be compared to choosing a spouse. Choose badly and you’ve got weeks or months of unhappy times on your hands! Fortunately, a topic can be changed a little more easily. Still, it makes sense to choose wisely at the beginning.

What are some tips in choosing a good research paper topic? Well, people disagree, but here is what I’ve found useful in the decades that I’ve been writing research papers:

·         Find something that interests you. Even in courses where the instructor chooses the topic, you often have enough room to find an angle that resonates with you personally.

·         Don’t bite off more than you can chew. The topic, “The Civil War” is not going to be covered well in a 5-6 page paper. More than likely, you’ll end up with a report that comes from a reference work (Which can lead to plagiarism!). Narrow your focus, so you can cover a subject well in the pages assigned.

·         Choose a topic that is significant. For most college papers, you want to choose something that has ramifications beyond the personal. For example, you may have strong feelings about why a ferret is a cuddlier pet than a kitten. But it’s probably not going to win over your instructor. Since in America, we are free to have either as pets, this is a topic that probably doesn’t warrant much discussion. (Warning here! Always go with your instructor’s guidelines. If she loves the ferret vs. kitten topic, then go for it.)


For most people, narrowing the topic is the hardest part. A research paper sounds so overwhelming that many students feel that the only way they’re going to be able to fill so many pages is to pick as broad a topic as possible. But remember, your goal is not to be broad and shallow, but narrow and deep.


For example, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, which was about 250 pages long, I had to go through a progression of narrowing down the topic. I started with my specialty: Victorian women writers.

                Victorian women writers

                                George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

                                                Female characters in the works of those authors

                                                                Female characters that have paying jobs in those works


Let’s try another example:

                Cell Phones

                                Banning of Cell Phones

                                                Banning of Using Cell Phones While Driving

                                                                Banning Teen Drivers from Using Cell Phones While Driving


This might be a good time to delve into some encyclopedias to get some background information and to discover some of the current controversies in the field. This is where your good friend, Wikipedia, can come in handy. Another good location for some subject dictionaries is the NSCC library website. (If you’re off campus, you’ll need your “A” and “pin” numbers to access these books.)


There is another way that a topic can be like a marriage. After you’ve chosen it and worked on it awhile, you may think you would be better off with a different topic. While sometimes, this may be the best thing, often it really isn’t. At some point, you’ll have to make a commitment and go with it.



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