How to Pick a Research Topic

One of the biggest stumbling blocks I’ve run across in terms of students and selecting research topics for a course paper is that students do not feel like they know enough about the topic to select a topic early on in the course. This feeling is completely understandable! I get it! Many classes are “survey” courses, meant to introduce you to a new set of topics in the first place.

However, on the other side of the coin, research is a skill and an important one to practice in class, it takes time to do well so you can’t just work on it for the last week of the semester, and writing a research paper can help you engage with the class topic in a more in depth way (i.e. you get more out of it).

So how do we fix this problem?

One simple solution is to use the syllabus to help you narrow down your topic selection. The syllabus is going to outline the topics covered in the course and the assigned readings for each day. Peruse the syllabus to find a topic or two that you’ll be covering in the class that you think looks especially interesting. Then, read ahead to figure out if the topic is as interesting as it looks at first blush.

Another solution is to meet with your professor during office hours. Assuming you have a few very broad ideas in mind (if not, return to the previous paragraph), you can visit your professor during office hours to ask for help in narrowing down your topic selection. Some things to think about before stepping into their office: (1) Why did that broad area seem interesting? (2) How does this class relate to your major/career goals? (3) Is there a specific case/event/study that you read that sparked your focus in this direction? Being able to provide a little bit of extra context will help the professor help you narrow down your topic to something that you’ll actually enjoy working on for the remainder of the term.

A few other rules of thumb:

  • Don’t pick a topic you hate, or you’ll be in for a long, tough term.
  • Pick a topic as early as possible, if you hate it/cannot find enough information/etc. you can more easily switch topics.
  • Make sure you transition from a topic into a question about that topic fairly early on. All good research papers should answer a question.

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