Develop a Research Topic

When you're assigned a research project, you may feel overwhelmed. You're not alone! This guide is here to help you through the process, starting with developing a solid research question.

Decipher My Assignment

The first step is to make sure you understand exactly what your instructor wants you to do. Watch this video if you're unclear about the assignment and want a little guidance. 

Browse Topic Ideas

If your assignment doesn't specify what topic you need to write about, how do you decide? And how do you know what will be a good topic? It's important to pick something that is interesting to you. You're going to be spending a lot of time learning about this topic, and you don't want to spend that time on something you don't care about.

Your instructor probably wants you to write about something relevant to what you're studying in class. Think about all of the things you've learned and read about already. Look over the syllabus, and skim through your assigned readings and texts. What are the topics you've covered in class that have been the most interesting to you? What made you curious to know more? Was there a particular chapter, article, or book you read that you enjoyed the most? This is the best place to start identifying what you want to write about.

If your topic assignment is totally open, and you don't have any ideas, start by browsing some of these great websites and databases to uncover potential topic ideas. These sources provide overviews about current events and issues, and you may find something that sparks your interest.

  • CQ Researcher - Browse overviews of current high-interest topics that affect everyday life in the US and abroad
  • Public Agenda Topics - A nonprofit public opinion research website that explores major controversial topics
  • Topics from the Online NewsHour - A public TV news program that offers transcripts of discussions on current issues
  • Check out the research guide for the general subject you're studying. Look at some of the links and sources provided there for ideas about what is being studied and researched in the field. 


One good way to organize your ideas is to brainstorm. This video discusses three different brainstorming techniques that will help you get your ideas out of your head and help you see a way forward. 

Do a Background Check

If you're going to be spending quality time with your topic, it is a good idea to first test your topic in a few search tools and gather some background information. This will help you better understand your topic before you commit to the relationship.

Learn how the following sources can help you grasp the broader context of your topic and provide you with pathways to start your research:


Wikipedia is super useful for gathering basic background information on many topics. Though you may not be able to cite Wikipedia in your paper, the articles often supply links and citations to more verifiable information.

Be sure to look at the references for links and citations. Remember to evaluate the information you find. If an article does not provide references, then check another background source.

Encyclopedias and Reference Sources

Encyclopedias provide general information about a topic. Some encyclopedias are very broad and cover a wide range of information, but not in much depth. Other encyclopedias are very specific and thorough. Many of our encyclopedias are online, and let you search many volumes at once. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Oxford Reference Online, and Sage Knowledge all include encyclopedias from many different subject areas. 

Oxford English Dictionary

Specialized dictionaries can help you better understand your topic by providing definitions and word origins on the words used to describe your topic. The Oxford English Dictionary is a historical dictionary of English, covering the language from the earliest times to the present day, tracing word development through time.

CQ Researcher

CQ Researcher provides in-depth reports on current events and controversial topics, including health, social trends, criminal justice, international affairs, education, the environment, technology, and the economy.

These reports provide excellent introductory overviews, background and chronology on hundreds of topics.

Create Questions

Are you looking for answers? Your search becomes much easier when you know the question.

Start by writing out your topic as a question. Ask yourself:

Is My Question Clear?

Your research question needs to be as clear as possible to effectively direct your research.

Too Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?

Better: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook?

Is My Question Focused?

Your research question must have a specific focus so that you can cover the topic well in the length allowed for your project.

Too Unfocused: What effect does global warming have on the environment?

Better: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in the Arctic Circle?

Is My Question Complex?

Your research question should not be answerable with easily-found facts. Your question should require research and analysis.

Too Simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?

Better: What are common traits of those suffering from diabetes in America, and how can these commonalities be used to aid the medical community in prevention of the disease?