This post is part of “The Cafe Scholar’s Guide to Writing a Research Paper” series, which walks you through the process of writing awesome research papers step by step from start to finish.  When you finish choosing your research paper topic, make sure to check out the rest of the series!

One of the most important steps in writing your research paper is choosing the right topic.

If you choose well, you will:

  • spend your time writing about something interesting to you
  • meet all the requirements of the assignment
  • have some ideas for further study if you are continuing on to more advanced classes in the field
  • have a good selection of academic sources which will make writing the paper much easier!
  • have more fun!

If you choose poorly, you will:

  • have a hard time finding good academic sources, so you will spend more time on research
  • find it difficult to write your paper well, because your topic is too broad or too narrow
  • run the risk of not meeting the requirements of your assignment
  • possibly have to change your topic, creating extra work. Yikes!

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How to Choose a Great Research Paper Topic
It is worth investing a little bit of time to choose well! Take some time, and start early. In fact, you are going to start at the very beginning of the course, in your planning stage. To help you out, I have created some templates for Evernote that walk you through these steps. You can get them for free here.

Part 1: Brainstorm Topic Ideas

As I discussed last week, during the planning stages of your paper, you will read through the assignment instructions and any suggestions or requirements for the paper topic. Then, review the topics that will be covered in the course from your syllabus and assigned readings, and use these to come up with an initial research paper topic idea brainstorm. This way, you have something in mind as you start your course reading and other assignments, and you can be on the look out for potential topics or sources for the topics you already have.

Part 2: Gather as you Go

As you go about your other assignments, here are some things you can be doing to prepare for choosing a topic:

Take Note of Topic Ideas

While you read, if you see what might be an interesting research paper topic idea or a source for one of the ideas you already came up with, write it down! Add it to your Topics note that you created in the planning stage. Make sure to save the source to Zotero so you will have what you need to cite it later. Use the tags you’ve created (and create more if needed) to track the ideas and sources so you can sort them easily later.

Go Down Bunny Trails

Read widely in the class’s topic – even outside of the assigned reading if you have time. Go to the library and flip through publications on that topic. Just browse until you find an article that you like and understand. Make note of it, save the source, and then see what sources that article cites. Read those sources, and follow the trail and collect these interesting ideas.

If your professor brings in outside research or articles, or cites sources in lecture slides or the syllabus, look at those sources and see if anything interesting stands out. Add it to your collection.

If you see different perspectives on a topic, make note as they might be good for a compare/contrast paper.

Part 3: Connect your Interests to your ResearchHow to Choose a Great Research Paper Topic

When you are coming closer to your goal date (remember those from last week?) to choose a topic, start another collection of ideas from the questions below.  These are going to help you tie in your personal interests.

What Are You Passionate About?

Even it is something not school related, can you find a way to link it to the subject of this class?  For example, if you are really into knitting, you could approach knitting from almost every discipline, such as the history of knitting as a cottage industry, or the psychological effects of needlecraft, etc.  What are some of your personal interests, such as sports, hobbies, music, movies or tv shows?  Can you find a way to connect these to the course you are taking?  It would be awesome to choose a research paper topic that gets you excited.

To Write Well, Write What You Know

Yes, it’s from that movie Never Been Kissed.  If this paper is for a class in an area where you don’t have much background yet, can you leverage the background you do have?  (Same thing if you are rusty in that area!)  I took a historical methods and writing class where we had to write a paper about the causes of the American Civil War.  I had not taken US history in probably 10 years, so I was a bit rusty!  But, I had taken a modern church history class that covered the Civil War time period, so I wrote my paper on religious factors leading up to the Civil War.  I had never written a paper on that topic, but I had covered enough background in my class that I wasn’t starting at ground zero.

What other classes are you taking?

Can you find a way to tie this class to something you are learning (or learned) in another class?  You can’t write the same paper, but you can leverage what you already know or answer a question you couldn’t address before, or tie the material from two classes together.  I studied storytelling in a class about oral cultures, practiced storytelling in a communications class (and used it for my project), and wrote a paper about storytelling as a way to teach a particular people group in a third class.  The three assignments were different but related enough that I could leverage the background knowledge and get even stronger in it.  I encourage my students to do this whenever possible, as it makes for really great papers and helps to integrate what you are learning across your degree program.

Buddy up!

What research paper topic is your study buddy thinking about doing?  I usually don’t advise doing the same topic as a friend, but if you choose a related topic, or a different approach to the same issue, time period, etc., it will help you in two ways.  First, if you find great sources you can share them; you get a second pair of eyes doing research.  Second, when your friend peer-reviews your paper, she will be familiar enough with the material to give you even better feedback.

Part 4: Narrow and Qualify

Now that you have collected all of these great ideas (and probably some so-so ones too…), it is time to narrow them down and start making some choices. Choose your top three topics for some further investigation. Read some encyclopedia articles and get a general feel for the topic. Start looking for potential sources (and pull together the ones you have found along the way). Try to answer the questions below. If you are using my FREE Research Planning Templates for Evernote, there is a template that you can copy for each of your top three or so topics to fill in these questions.

Does it meet the requirements for the assignment?

I know this seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes we go too far down the bunny trail and miss the assignment requirements.  Check this first!

Is it narrow enough to write well for this length of paper?

Is it too narrow to find sources and material in the time you have to write? You want to get narrow but not too narrow at this stage. If you need to narrow it down, depending on your discipline, you can zoom in on a smaller time period, geographical area, people group, etc.

Is it significant?

Does it contribute to the body of knowledge? Generally, if there are Spark Notes on it, it has been done too many times. If there are a few books written on exactly your topic, it may not make the greatest paper. You want to be doing analysis, not just regurgitating what someone else said.
If you really like a topic but it has been done before quite a bit, you could compare and contrast two or three writers’ approaches to a part of that topic. This is really good for narrowing down a topic that is too big or too broad as well.

How to Choose a Great Research Paper Topic

Is it possible to get evidence?

For a science or social science paper, is it testable, and is it feasible to test in the time and space you have to complete the assignment? If not, can you do an analysis of what other people have tested? For any paper, are there enough quality academic sources available? Are they in languages you can read, and accessible at your reading level? Are the sources available at your school or through interlibrary loan?

Do you need your sources to be within a particular discipline?

It depends on the course, so make sure you check. If you are writing a history paper, you generally want your sources to be historians. Ask your professor if you are not sure. Some professors require that you use certain types of sources and don’t use others, so make sure you check to make sure you can find the right sources on this topic to meet your professor’s requirements.

Does your research topic require any special skills?

Will you need particular technical skills or background knowledge? Do you have the right skill set to do this project?

What are some possible research questions and theses for this topic?

You probably won’t know exactly yet, but test out some questions and make sure that you can come up with a few ideas.
When you have narrowed down to a few topics and addressed the questions above (or at least most of them), take your top two or three ideas and run them by your professor. This way, you know up front that your topic is good to go (or not), and you can get recommendations on sources and whether a particular topic might be too broad or narrow to write well. You also show your professor that you are not waiting until the last minute!

Want More? Here are some university websites with great advice on how to choose a research paper topic:

What topics are you considering for your next research paper?  Let me know in the comments below!

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