Adapted from the Research Toolkit created by Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin (Hunter College).
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Developing an interesting research topic isn’t about the answers you find: it’s about the questions you ask. In order to identify meaningful questions you may first need to learn more about your research topic. Developing your topic will likely involve a number of processes, including:
If given the option to choose your own research paper topic, you will want to choose a topic with a couple of things in mind:
We are often told to narrow our topic early in the research process. Although having a narrow research question can help ensure that the scope of our research is manageable, we may often make these questions so narrow that we ignore other—sometimes more interesting—approaches to the topic.
For example, say your initial research question is: What are the ways women are discriminated against in the workplace? During your initial reading you may realize that this question is too broad, but you may want to keep it a little broad in your initial stages of research. In learning more about how others have approached the question, you will probably be better able to determine an interesting focus.
On the other hand, your initial question could be too narrow, such as How long is maternity leave in Georgia? In this case, you would need to explore larger issues related to your topic. (For example, you might search for maternity leave standards in the U.S. and/or in other countries, or you might focus on maternity leave in a certain field or profession (for example, STEM fields). During this process you could also explore debates about what laws or standards for maternity leave should be.
In either case, your background reading would lead you to a more partiular aspect of a broader topic. If you are interested in gender and the workplace, you might ultimately ask a question like:
These questions may lead to narrowing the topic further to a specific issue, such as specific types of discrimination in STEM fields.
Changing Your Research Question throughout the Process
Whether your professor gives you a question to research, or you produce your own research question, you should keep it flexible enough that you can change the question throughout your reading process. Your reading should help you think about different approaches to your topic.
A well-developed research question is clear, focused, and has appropriately complex.
Unclear: Why are social networking sites harmful?
Clearer: How are online users experiencing or addressing privacy issues on such social networking sites as MySpace and Facebook?
Too broad: What are the global warming's environmental effects?
More focused: How is glacial melting affecting penguins in Antarctica?
Too simple: How are doctors addressing diabetes in the U.S.?
Appropriately complex: 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?
Adapted from George Mason University Writing Center's How to Write a Research Question (2008)