Skip to main content

Picking a Topic: Home

This guide will help you to choose a topic for your research paper.

Overview - Picking a Topic

When you get a research assignment in college, your professor may give you a prompt. A prompt is, simply put, the rules for the paper that you are assigned to write. It will have things like due date, research question, resources to use (like journals or newspapers), and other rules for the paper. A research question is the topic that you are going to be writing about expressed in a narrative form. For example:

The American Civil War had many causes, in addition to the obvious one of slavery. What are some of the other issues that fueled the start of hostilities between the North and the South? How did the viewpoints of these issues vary between the North and South? How did people of different economic classes view these issues?

Sometimes, your professor will allow you to choose your own topic, usually within certain guidelines. What do you do then? Many students struggle with this and often pick topics that are inappropriate or difficult to research. Consider the following:

  • Is your proposed topic one that scientists or researchers would have an interest in? For example, it may be difficult to find research on the latest pop star or a little known video game.
  • Does the scope of your topic fit the size of the paper you need to write? If you have a two page paper, the topic of global warming is much too large. You need to narrow it down to a specific aspect of global warming, like its effect on the economy or the shrinking of the ice caps. 
  • Is your topic popular or not well known? You will find a lot more information on a popular topic, like the Civil War, than you will about a lesser studied topic, like the Teapot Dome Scandal. How you narrow that topic down will also have an impact on how much information that you can find.
  • Be careful about choosing topics that are impossible to research. Some topics are literally impossible to research. This is because sometimes the information that you want simply doesn't exist, because no one has collected it, it's proprietary, or lost to time. For example, if you wanted to write a paper about the current information contacts of the CIA, it would be impossible to do so with any degree of accuracy. That information is highly classified and so would be unavailable to you. 

Help Choosing a Topic

Here are some options to explore when you need help choosing or narrowing down your topic:

  • Ask your professor for feedback. This works best if you already have a general topic in mind, but need help narrowing it down or advice on whether it's something that will work for the assignment.
  • Ask the librarian if your topic is available in the library's collection of books and online resources. This will help you determine if the topic will be easy to research.
  • Narrow your topic based on the paper requirements. If the paper only asks you for three sources, you will need to narrow your topic down quite a bit for your topic scope to match your paper's scope. You can't talk about the entire history of baseball in a 2-page paper. The assignment requirements should guide you on how narrow your topic needs to be. Ask your professor or a librarian if you need help with this.  
  • Run a search in the library databases on a general topic. Look at the results. Is there an article that grabs your interest? Maybe you can use the topic of that article to write your paper on.
  • Google: (blank) research paper topics. For example, the search "Science research paper topics" will get you a lot of results to review.

Video copyrighted by USU Libraries, available on YouTube.

Next Steps with your Topic

After you have a general idea of what you'd like to research, there are some things you can do to make your research easier.

  • Develop a research question. A research question helps you narrow down your topic and develop your paper's thesis. Reviewing this short tutorial a good way to learn how to do this.
  • Do pre-research. Run some quick searches to see if the information that you need is available. If you're not finding enough or finding too much information, you may need to make changes to your topic.
  • Talk to a librarian about potential resources. The librarian can tell you the best place to look for information on your topic.
  • Do pre-writing and outlining activities. Although this seems like a lot of extra work, it's very beneficial to do this. Putting in extra effort in the beginning will help you to avoid a panicked rush right before your paper is due. This video on writing research papers is a great source on how to do this.
  • Be open to changing your topic. Sometimes, as you get deeper into the writing and research process, you find that your topic is not working out the way you intended. Maybe you can't find evidence to support your thesis. Maybe your topic is too broad and there is an overwhelming amount of material to review. Don't give up! It's okay to make changes to your topic. If you had to get your topic approved with your professor, check with them before drastically changing your topic. Do NOT try to make the information that you find support your thesis when it actually doesn't. Your teacher will be more impressed that you changed your mind after doing research than they will if you try to change the facts to fit your narrative.

This video is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license. Complete credits

Creative Commons License
Picking a Topic by Lori Cassidy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, unless otherwise noted.