Choosing A Good Topic For A Research Paper

Top 10 tips to choose an essay topic


Choosing a topic for an essay, research paper or writing assignment can be difficult. Read our tips for some easy ideas will help you improve the scores you find a topic for your essay and help you get a better grade on research papers. Whether its for a college scholarship, an essay, a writing sample or research paper, check our tips and other articles for more ways to improve your essay writing abilities.


How to choose a topic for an essay or research paper

Choosing an essay topic is one of the most important parts of writing a great essay or paper. Many things require essay writing and if you choose the right topic, it will be easier to write your paper and it will automatically be better! College scholarships and applications, high school and middle school research papers, work at a university and jobs all require essays. Here are some tips to help you choose an essay topic or research topic and see our other articles for more help writing papers.

1. Select something that interests you. Your reader can tell if you are interested in your own topic - your enthusiam will show through in your writing. If you don't have a choice about the topic, try to find an angle that could make it interesting to you. If your reader is bored stiff by your paper, you will not receive top marks or you won't get the scholarship. However, a paper that might be a little lacking in other ways (or one that was writtin the night before in an hour) can get bumped up to an A or get selected as the best just because of enthusiasm and passion in the writing.

2. Choose something you know about. Rather than trying to take on a massive project, pick something you already know about to write. It will make the writing process faster and easier because you already have a lot of the information in your head. That means less research on your part, less effort and it will be faster and easier to write the paper.

3. Narrow your topic down to a manageble size, if you have an idea what you want to write about. Whatever your topic is, ask yourself if you can really explore the topic and prove your point in the small amount of space you will have to fill. I know when you're looking at 5, 10 or 20 blank pages to fill, it seems like too much, but the majority of topics are far too big to do justice to in just a few pages. Your first idea will almost always be too big. Keep refining it until its manageable. For example, 'the plays of Shakespeare' is not a topic you want to take on unless you're writing a 1,000-page book. 'Comparisons of strong female characters in Shakespeare's comedies' could be a topic. You could still refine further by selecting perhaps 3 characters to contrast.

4. Find an interesting way to approach a topic. This will keep your writing controlled, give it structure and help you define your thesis. For example, instead of writing about slavery, refine the topic to a particular country, state, time period, or element of slavery. Then refine further. Slavery is not a topic. It's too big. Get an angle, such as 'the life of women enslaved in the South Carolina sea island rice plantations in the early 1800s differed drastically from other manifestations of slavery'. That is examining one element, or one part of slavery, so it is a reasonable topic. Another example: Baseball. That's not a topic. Some specific player's philosophy on practice and how it mainfested in his success could be a topic.

5. Start researching. If you have a vague idea of what you want to write an essay about but you don't know where to go with it or you need to clarify it, get some books from the library and flip through them for ideas. Look for the topic in the news or online. Look for images of the topic online and see what you find. You might find the angle you are looking for.

6. Brain storm. Write a list of ideas you have or write a list of things that interest you. If your topic is what makes a great leader, start writing some words that remind you of a leader or write the names of leaders you admire and why you admire them. Write down some of the topics that are possible. Open a dictionary and flip through, writing down interesting words or ideas that pop out at you. Write down anything that pops into your head and keep writing until you have a good long list. Take a short break and then go back and see if any one idea or a few items pop outas a possibility. If something does, get a new sheet of paper and start brainstorming the idea. Do it right away, when you're energetic so the ideas will flow.

7. Look right in front of you. What do you spend most of your time doing or thinking about? A sports team? A hobby? A goal? A certain game? Often whatever it is that you do in your spare time could be merged into an essay topic. If you play civilization-building games, research the real history behind one of the civiliizations. If you love a certain band, could you research something about their music, or one of the artists who inspired them? Often there are ways to use things you do every day and develop them into an essay or research paper. Just be creative and think out of the box.

8. Ask a teacher, advisor or look online. Stuck for a specific angle? Google the topic and see what other people have written about the topic. Ask a teacher, parent or a respected friend or mentor for some guidance or ideas on what to choose. They will feel flattered that you asked them and will probably give some great ideas.

9. Re-use a topic. Think about whether you have a topic you've written about before that you could re-use for this essay. You may even be able to use sections of what you wrote before or re-use the research. You may be able to just look at a related topic, a different aspect of the same idea. For instance, if you wrote a paper about the history of soccer before, you could write a new one about the popularity of soccer in a certain country, and one section of the essay could be the history of soccer (your old paper condensed). Be careful with this method though. Teachers talk to each other and this might not fly. If the essay was used in a different school or a for a different college class, it might work. If you re-write the paper about a new angle on the new topic, it should be seen as legitimate. If the essay is something such as 'my views on leadership' for a college scholarship or application, by all means, copy and paste it and re-use it.

10. It's the last minute! What do I do? If you can't find anything that thrills you, just pick something and get started. Take your most basic idea and run with it. It will be over soon and you can stop worrying. Or if you have to turn in an essay and thesis statement in advance, just go with your best idea but keep searching for a better one. If you come across something better, most professors will let you change your topic. If you find a great idea, even if you've already written a little, don't hesitate to throw out a few notes and start over. If you are interested in the essay topic, the essay will almost write itself.



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Do not assume that choosing a research problem to study will be a quick or easy task! You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study and you choose a topic from that list; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.


I.  How To Begin:  You are given the topic to write about

Step 1: Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?" The main concepts is this problem are: European Union, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].

Step 2: Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the USC Libraries Catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary library databases such as ProQuestt or subject-specific databases found here. Use the main concept terms you developed in Step 1 and their synonyms to retrieve relevant articles. This will help you refine and frame the scope of the research problem. Don’t be surprised if you need to do this several times before you finalize how to approach writing about the topic.

NOTE: Always review the references from your most relevant research results cited by the authors in footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography to locate related research on your topic. This is a good strategy for identifying important prior research about the topic because titles that are repeatedly cited indicate their significance in laying a foundation for understanding the problem. However, if you’re having trouble at this point locating relevant research literature,ask a librarian for help!

ANOTHER NOTE:  If you find an article from a journal that's particularly helpful, put quotes around the title of the article and paste it into Google Scholar. If the article record appears, look for a "cited by" reference followed by a number. This link indicates how many times other researchers have subsequently cited that article since it was first published. This is an excellent strategy for identifying more current, related research on your topic. Finding additional cited by references from your original list of cited by references helps you navigate through the literature and, by so doing, understand the evolution of thought around a particular research problem.

Step 3: Since social science research papers are generally designed to get you to develop your own ideas and arguments, look for sources that can help broaden, modify, or strengthen your initial thoughts and arguments [for example, if you decide to argue that the European Union is ill prepared to take on responsibilities for broader global security because of the debt crisis in many EU countries, then focus on identifying sources that support as well as refute this position].

There are least four appropriate roles your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis:

  • Sources of criticism -- frequently, you'll find yourself reading materials that are relevant to your chosen topic, but you disagree with the author's position. Therefore, one way that you can use a source is to describe the counter-argument, provide evidence from your review of the literature as to why the prevailing argument is unsatisfactory, and to discuss how your own view is more appropriate based upon your interpretation of the evidence.
  • Sources of new ideas -- while a general goal in writing college research papers in the social sciences is to approach a research problem with some basic idea of what position you'd like to take and what grounds you'd like to stand upon, it is certainly acceptable [and often encouraged] to read the literature and extend, modify, and refine your own position in light of the ideas proposed by others. Just make sure that you cite the sources!
  • Sources for historical context -- another role your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis is to place issues and events in proper historical context. This can help to demonstrate familiarity with developments in relevant scholarship about your topic, provide a means of comparing historical versus contemporary issues and events, and identifying key people, places, and things that had an important role related to the research problem.
  • Sources of interdisciplinary insight -- an advantage of using databases like ProQuest to begin exploring your topic is that it covers publications from a variety of different disciplines. Another way to formulate how to study the topic is to look at it from different disciplinary perspectives. If the topic concerns immigration reform, for example, ask yourself, how do studies from sociological journals found by searching ProQuest vary in their analysis from those in law journals. A goal in reviewing related literature is to provide a means of approaching a topic from multiple perspectives rather than the perspective offered from just one discipline.

NOTE: Remember to keep careful notes at every stage or utilize a citation management system like EndNotes or RefWorks. You may think you'll remember what you have searched and where you found things, but it’s easy to forget or get confused.

Step 4: Assuming you've done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature, you're ready to prepare a detailed outline for your paper that lays the foundation for a more in-depth and focused review of relevant research literature [after consulting with a librarian, if needed!]. How will you know you haven't done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature? A good indication is that you start composing your paper outline and gaps appear in how you want to approach the study. This indicates the need to do further research on the research problem.


I.  How To Begin:  You are provided a list of possible topics to choose from

Step 1: I know what you’re thinking--which topic from this list my professor has given me will be the easiest to find the most information on? An effective instructor should never include a topic that is so obscure or complex that no research is available to examine and from which to begin to design a study. Instead of searching for the path of least resistance choose a topic that you find interesting in some way, or that is controversial and that you have a strong opinion about, or has some personal meaning for you. You're going to be working on your topic for quite some time, so choose one that you find interesting and engaging or that motivates you to take a position.

Once you’ve settled on a topic of interest from the list, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed above to further develop it into a research paper.

NOTE: It’s ok to review related literature to help refine how you will approach analyzing a topic, and then discover that the topic isn’t all that interesting to you. In that case, you can choose another from the list. Just don’t wait too long to make a switch and be sure to consult with your professor first that you are changing your topic.


III.  How To Begin:  Your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic

Step 1: Under this scenario, the key process is turning an idea or general thought into a topic that can be configured into a research problem. When given an assignment where you choose the research topic, don't begin by thinking about what to write about, but rather, ask yourself the question, "What do I want to know?" Treat an open-ended assignment as an opportunity to learn about something that's new or exciting to you.

Step 2: If you lack ideas, or wish to gain focus, try some or all of the following strategies:

  • Review your course readings, particularly the suggested readings, for topic ideas. Don't just review what you've already read but jump ahead in the syllabus to readings that have not been covered yet.
  • Search the USC Libraries Catalog for a good, recently published book and, if appropriate, more specialized works related to the discipline area of the course [e.g., for the course SOCI 335, search for books on population and society].
  • Browse through some current journals in your subject discipline. Even if most of the articles are not relevant, you can skim through the contents quickly. You only need one to be the spark that begins the process of wanting to learn more about a topic. Consult with a librarian and/or your professor about the core journals within your subject discipline.
  • Think about essays you have written for past classes and other coursework you have taken or academic lectures and programs you have attended. Thinking back, what most interested you? What would you like to know more about?
  • Search online media sources, such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, or Newsweek, to see if your idea has been covered by the media. Use this coverage to refine your idea into something that you'd like to investigate further but in a more deliberate, scholarly way based on a particular problem that needs to be researched.

Step 3: To build upon your initial idea, use the suggestions under this tab to help narrow, broaden, or increase the timeliness of your idea so you can write it out as a research problem.

Once you are comfortable with having turned your idea into a research problem, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed in Part I above to further develop it into a research paper.


Alderman, Jim. "Choosing a Research Topic." Beginning Library and Information Systems Strategies. Paper 17. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Digital Commons, 2014; Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 2: Choosing a Research Topic. Adrian R. Eley. Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. New York: Routledge, 2012; Answering the Question. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Brainstorming. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Brainstorming. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011; Choosing a Topic. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University;  Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; How To Write a Thesis Statement. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Identify Your Question. Start Your Research. University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

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