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How to Find a Topic for Your Research Paper

Last Updated: September 12, 2023 References

This article was co-authored by Matthew Snipp, PhD and by wikiHow staff writer, Jennifer Mueller, JD . C. Matthew Snipp is the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor of Humanities and Sciences in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University. He is also the Director for the Institute for Research in the Social Science’s Secure Data Center. He has been a Research Fellow at the U.S. Bureau of the Census and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He has published 3 books and over 70 articles and book chapters on demography, economic development, poverty and unemployment. He is also currently serving on the National Institute of Child Health and Development’s Population Science Subcommittee. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. This article has been viewed 85,597 times.

Sometimes, finding a topic for a research paper can be the most challenging part of the whole process. When you're looking out at a field brimming with possibilities, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Lucky for you, we here at wikiHow have come up with a list of ways to pick that topic that will take you from the more vague brainstorming all the way to your specific, perfectly focused research question and thesis.

Review your course materials.

Your textbook, syllabus, and class notes can help you find a topic.

  • If your textbook has discussion questions at the end of each chapter, these can be great to comb through for potential research paper topic ideas.
  • Look at any recommended reading your instructor has suggested—you might find ideas there as well.

Search hot issues in your field of study.

Run an internet search or talk to your instructor.

  • Think about current events that touch on your field of study as well. For example, if you're writing a research paper for a sociology class, you might want to write something related to race in America or the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Other instructors in the same department or field might also have ideas for you. Don't be afraid to stop in during their office hours and talk or send them an email, even if you've never had them for a class.

Go for a walk to get your brain going.

Being active can stimulate your mind to focus on topic ideas.

  • If you want to walk with a friend and discuss topic ideas as you walk, that can help too. Sometimes, you'll come up with new things when you can bounce your ideas off someone else.

Ask your family or friends for input.

Bounce ideas off of people you know to get their thoughts.

  • People who aren't really familiar with the general subject you're researching can be helpful too! Because they aren't making many assumptions, they might bring up something you'd overlooked or not thought about before.

Free-write on topic ideas to find your passion.

Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and write without stopping.

  • Having a personal interest in the topic will keep you from getting bored. You'll do better research—and write a better paper—if you're excited about the topic itself.

Read background information on your favorites.

Search online for background articles about topics you like.

  • Ideally, based on your background research, you'll be able to choose one of the topics that interests you the most. If you still can't narrow it down, keep reading!
  • Even though you wouldn't want to use them as sources for your actual paper, sources like Wikipedia can be excellent for getting background information about a topic.

Identify important words to use as keywords.

Jot down words related to your topic to search for sources.

  • For example, if you've chosen environmental regulations as a topic, you might also include keywords such as "conservation," "pollution," and "nature."

Do preliminary research using your keywords.

Search online or on library databases and review your results.

  • Your results might also suggest other keywords you can search to find more sources. Searching for specific terminology used in articles you find often leads to other articles.
  • Check the bibliography of any papers you find to pick up some other sources you might be able to use.

Limit a broad topic.

Narrow your topic to a specific time period, geographic area, or population.

  • For example, suppose you decided to look at race relations in the US during the Trump administration. If you got too many results, you might narrow your results to a single US city or state.
  • Keep in mind how long your research paper will ultimately be. For example, if there's an entire book written on a topic you want to write a 20-page research paper on, it's probably too broad.

Expand a topic that's too narrow.

Broaden your scope if you're not getting enough results from your keywords.

  • For example, suppose you wanted to research the impact of a particular environmental law on your hometown, but when you did a search, you didn't get any quality results. You might expand your search to encompass the entire state or region, rather than just your hometown.

Do more in-depth research to fine-tune your topic.

Run another search based on the information you've gained.

  • For example, you might do an initial search and get hundreds of results back and decide your topic is too broad. Then, when you limit it, you get next to nothing and figure out you've narrowed it too much, so you have to broaden it a little bit again.
  • Stay flexible and keep going until you've found that happy medium that you think will work for your paper.

Formulate the question you'll answer in your paper.

Use the 5 W's (who, what, when, where, and why) to write your question.

  • For example, your research question might be something like "How did environmental regulations affect the living conditions of people living near paper mills?" This question covers "who" (people living near paper mills), "what" (living conditions), "where" (near paper mills), and "why" (environmental regulations).

Build a list of potential sources.

Write down citation information as you work.

  • At this point, your list is still a "working" list. You won't necessarily use all the sources you find in your actual paper.
  • Building a working list of sources is also helpful if you want to use a source and can't immediately get access to it. If you have to get it through your professor or request it from another library, you have time to do so.

Develop your thesis.

Your thesis is the answer to your research question.

  • For example, suppose your research question is "How did environmental regulations affect the living conditions of people living near paper mills?" Your thesis might be something like: "Environmental regulations improved living conditions for people living around paper mills."
  • As another example, suppose your research question is "Why did hate crimes spike in the US from 2017 to 2020?" Your thesis might be: "A permissive attitude towards racial supremacy caused a spike in hate crimes in the US from 2017 to 2020."
  • Keep in mind, you don't have to prove that your thesis is correct. Proving that your thesis was wrong can make for an even more compelling research paper, especially if your thesis follows conventional wisdom.

Expert Q&A

  • If you've been given a list of topics but you come up with something different that you want to do, don't be afraid to talk to your instructor about it! The worst that will happen is that they'll make you choose something from the list instead. [11] X Trustworthy Source Purdue Online Writing Lab Trusted resource for writing and citation guidelines Go to source Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0

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  • ↑ https://library.sacredheart.edu/c.php?g=29803&p=185905
  • ↑ https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/08/how-steve-jobs-odd-habit-can-help-you-brainstorm-ideas.html
  • ↑ https://emory.libanswers.com/faq/44525
  • ↑ https://emory.libanswers.com/faq/44524
  • ↑ https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/common_writing_assignments/research_papers/choosing_a_topic.html

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Selecting a research topic: overview.

  • Refine your topic
  • Background information & facts
  • Writing help

Here are some resources to refer to when selecting a topic and preparing to write a paper:

  • MIT Writing and Communication Center "Providing free professional advice about all types of writing and speaking to all members of the MIT community."
  • Search Our Collections Find books about writing. Search by subject for: english language grammar; report writing handbooks; technical writing handbooks
  • Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation Online version of the book that provides examples and tips on grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and other writing rules.
  • Select a topic

Choosing an interesting research topic is your first challenge. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a topic that you are interested in! The research process is more relevant if you care about your topic.
  • If your topic is too broad, you will find too much information and not be able to focus.
  • Background reading can help you choose and limit the scope of your topic. 
  • Review the guidelines on topic selection outlined in your assignment.  Ask your professor or TA for suggestions.
  • Refer to lecture notes and required texts to refresh your knowledge of the course and assignment.
  • Talk about research ideas with a friend.  S/he may be able to help focus your topic by discussing issues that didn't occur to you at first.
  • WHY did you choose the topic?  What interests you about it?  Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?
  • WHO are the information providers on this topic?  Who might publish information about it?  Who is affected by the topic?  Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?
  • WHAT are the major questions for this topic?  Is there a debate about the topic?  Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?
  • WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national or international level?  Are there specific places affected by the topic?
  • WHEN is/was your topic important?  Is it a current event or an historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?

Table of contents

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Q. How can I choose a good topic for my research paper?

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Answered By: Woodruff Library Reference Last Updated: Jan 04, 2022     Views: 541866

How do you decide what to write about when confronted with a research paper? You want a focused topic!

Here are some things to consider:

  • Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. Ask your professor for feedback if you are unsure.
  • Choose a topic that is interesting to you.  It may seem obvious, but this will make the research process more fun and engaging for you.
  • Consider the scope of your topic. If your topic is too broad it may be hard to find information that is focused and relevant; if your topic is too narrow it may be hard to find any information at all.

Here's one strategy for developing a research topic once you have a broad topic in mind:

  • Background research will help you develop your topic and hone or change it in more appropriate ways.  Knowing more about your topic's background can only help you develop a more effective topic, and therefore, research paper.
  • Brainstorm concepts.  Once you think of a broad topic that interests you, try to brainstorm all of the words or concepts you can that might be related to that topic (and write them down!). For example, if your topic is "polar bears," you might think of the following words and topics in association: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, climate change, and environmental icon. 
  • Develop a research question . Once you have come up with a broad topic and done some background research, you may want to develop a research question, or a question you're going to answer in your paper by doing more, in-depth research.
  • What's your general approach to the topic?  Think about some general approaches that may help you further develop your topic: use a historical angle by focusing on a particular time period; a geographical angle, focusing on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focusing on a particular group of people.
  • Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you do more in-depth research, like looking for scholarly articles, books, and other sources to include in your paper, you can and probably will modify or refine your topic based on what you find.
  • Research is a dynamic process. Don't be afraid to discover new things and modify or refine your topic.

The topic development process will help you to develop your thesis , which is essentially your proposed answer to your research question. You will then be ready to use the sources you've found, and find more sources in order to support that thesis, or to answer your research question.

Here's an example of how the topic development process above can lead you to a thesis:

Resources that can help you develop your topic:

  • Your instructor, course readings, class notes, Wikipedia, and Google can all be helpful in terms of getting ideas for broad topics.
  • A Research Guide for a particular subject created by a subject librarian is great for helping you choose where to begin your research. These online guides will identify encyclopedias, books, databases, and other materials to help you get started with research. You can also ask a librarian at the Library Service Desk.
  • Library resources like Credo Reference Unlimited , Gale Virtual Reference Library ,  CQ Researcher and subject-specific encyclopedias can help you come up with topic ideas because they provide great overviews and introductions to topics. You can find links to these kinds of resources in the  Research Guides mentioned above. These will probably not be scholarly sources you can use in your paper, but they may lead you to more in-depth, scholarly resources that you will want to use in your paper.

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Finding a Research Topic

Which step of the research process takes the most time?

A. Finding a topic B. Researching a topic C. Both

How did you answer the above question? Do you spend most of your efforts actually researching a topic, or do you spend a lot of time and energy finding a topic? Ideally, you’ll want to spend fairly equal amounts of effort on both. Finding an appropriate and manageable topic can sometimes be just as hard as researching a topic.

A good research topic will have a body of related research which is accessible and manageable. Identifying a topic with these characteristics at the beginning  of the research process will ultimately save you time.

Finding a research topic that is interesting, relevant, feasible, and worthy of your time may take substantial effort so you should be prepared to invest your time accordingly. Considering your options, doing some background work on each option, and ultimately settling on a topic that is manageable will spare you many of the frustrations that come from attempting research on a topic that, for whatever reason, may not be appropriate.

Remember that as you are searching for a research topic you will need to be able to find enough information about your topic(s) in a book or scholarly journal. If you can only find information about your topic(s) in current event sources (newspapers, magazines, etc.) then the topic might be too new to have a large body of published scholarly information. If this is the case, you may want to reconsider the topic(s).

So how do you find a research topic? Unfortunately there’s no directory of topics that you pick and choose from, but there are a few relatively easy techniques that you can use to find a relevant and manageable topic. A good starting point may be to view the Library's Resources for Finding a Research Topic Workshop below.

The sub-pages in this section (on the left-hand menu) offer various tips for where and how to locate resources to develop your research topic. And for additional information on selecting a research topic, see the resources below.

  • Defining a Topic - SAGE Research Methods
  • Develop My Research Idea - Academic Writer Note: You MUST create an Academic Writer account AND start a paper in order to access this tool. Once you have done so, open a paper and click Research Lab Book in the left navigation menu.
  • The Process for Developing Questions - ASC Guide

Resources for Finding a Research Topic Workshop

This workshop will introduce you to library resources which can be used to locate potential topics for a research paper or dissertation. This workshop explores websites, reference books, and scholarly articles, as well as review criteria to consider when selecting a topic.

  • Resources for Finding a Research Topic Workshop Outline

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researcher thinking about paper topic

#103: How to find a paper topic

November 2, 2021 by Tress Academic

Is writing a journal paper high up on your agenda? Then one of the first questions to clarify is what you’re going to write about. What is the topic of your paper? We know identifying a topic can sometimes be a painful process. Therefore, we’ve provided 10 ideas for how you can find the topic for your next journal paper.    

Why can’t you just sit down and write about what comes to mind? Isn’t writing a creative process? You’re a lucky writer if you can both be in the mood for writing at all, and actually have the time to do it. Choosing a topic isn’t all that difficult, right? 

Well, yes, but you’ll soon realise that writing a paper is more than just sitting down and typing something on your laptop. You need to know what you want to say, what knowledge you want to report, and what discussion you want to stimulate. And you need to know whether what you want to write about has a chance of getting published or whether it’s suitable for journal publication. Journals don’t accept just any topic. 

We think it’s worth spending a bit of time choosing a good topic for your next paper. Here, we suggest 10 ideas on how to identify a topic and provide a free worksheet “Identify your paper topic” to help you further. 

how to find a topic for your research paper

1. Get inspired by other papers

If you want to write a journal paper, why not first look into the journals in your field and read some of the published papers? Find out how they’re written, what and how much they cover, how they’re structured, and consider if you could do something similar. Reading other papers can provide great inspiration for what you could write. 

2. Browse for open questions

Are there any open questions in your field that you could address in a paper? You have probably worked on one such question, and could provide some valuable input in a paper. Think about questions that are burning in your field but still remain open, and what you could contribute to advance the field. 

3. Review your research notes

Make a quick overview of the research you have done so far. Which questions have you been working on and what have you found? Look through your lab book, the draft results, or the data you’ve collected—is there anything that could be turned into a paper? Do you have any unpublished findings or materials that you never published although they would be suitable for a paper?

how to find a topic for your research paper

4. Go for something that interests you

You’ll have the greatest motivation to write a paper if it’s about a topic that really interests you. So find out what the cool questions are you’re working on and which ones you’re burning to answer most. Start working on such a topic. When you’re motivated and interested, you’re willing to invest a bit more time into this paper, you’ll write a better paper, and finish it earlier. 

5. Browse for review paper topics

If you’re in the early stages of a research project, or if you gained a good overview of a specific research question or field through an extensive literature study, consider writing a review paper. You can systematically summarise your knowledge in this field and make it available to peers. 

6. Look for novel aspects in your research

Focus on the aspects of your research that are new. What have you done that other studies have not done yet? It doesn’t have to be something groundbreaking, but if there’s a novel element in your research, use it as a starting point for a paper. This novel aspect is an important advantage of your research compared to others.  

7. Connect to existing research

Your research is most likely embedded in a wider field, and you’re not the only one working in it. This can be an advantage as well. Think about how your research is linked to other studies. You can probably connect with previously published work and further develop their thoughts, or provide additional confirming results or even new findings—each case would be a good basis for your paper. 

how to find a topic for your research paper

8. Focus on what you can deliver

Sometimes you have too many ideas about papers that you want to write, but some of these papers would require additional research, or at least substantial literature search and study. A more pragmatic approach is to focus on what you’ve got on your plate already. It might not be related to the coolest and hottest questions in your fieldt, but it’s something that you can write about because you’ve already got it. You only need to utilize it! 

9. Look for a call for papers and special issues 

Sometimes, journals initiate a call for papers on a specific subject, or they plan a complete special issue of their journal. These are attractive offers for you as an author. If you have been working on a topic related to such a call, you would not only have an incentive to write a paper now, but also have an indication of which journal you could submit to. As they are calling for papers on a specific topic, they have a particular interest in papers in that specific field. 

10. Talk to a colleague or supervisor

When brainstorming possible ideas for a paper topic, it can be helpful to discuss these ideas with a fellow colleague or a supervisor. By explaining ideas to them, you will learn how plausible and convincing some of the ideas are, and which ideas ultimately aren’t as suitable for your next paper as you originally thought. Having these collegial sparring partners is valuable—you will for sure get helpful feedback from them to fine-tune one of your paper ideas. 

In an ideal world, the topic for your next paper would originate organically from the research that you just completed. You did this project and therefore, you’re going to write a paper about it. If it works out like this for you, great, do it! But sometimes, everyday life as a researcher is far from ideal. Projects don’t always progress as you want, they’re delayed or scrapped completely, but you nonetheless want to produce a research output: a journal paper. 

And when you’re at the beginning of your career as a researcher, you probably don’t have so many alternative projects to fall back on to identify a topic for your next paper. But this doesn’t mean you cannot publish. The 10 suggestions described above will help you to come up with topics for your next paper, even if everyday research is not progressing as you had planned. You can still write a paper. Consider the 10 suggestions carefully, and you’ll see there is for sure an option for you to get your next paper started. To help you further, we’ve created a free worksheet with questions you can ask yourself to identify a possible topic for the paper. 

P.S. What often helps us to find a topic for a publication is to go for a walk outside and brainstorm possible topics. It’s sometimes easier to leave the office and do the thought exercise outside. Or you can go to a cafe or a bar and think about it there. For example, deciding on the topic of this blog post (as well as the entire writing of it) happened on a business trip in the bar of a hotel in Berlin. Sometimes it just helps to go somewhere else to come up with a good idea and make it a reality. 

Relevant resources: 

  • Worksheet “Identify your paper topic”
  • Blog post #79: 5 decisions that make writing your paper so much easier
  • Blog post #66: Writer’s block: Stuck on your paper, with no idea how to move forward?  
  • Blog post #64: How to work on your paper without struggle
  • Blog post #5: How to get started with writing papers?

More information

Do you want to successfully write and publish a journal paper? If so, please sign up to receive our free guides.

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