How to Develop a Topic for Your College Research Paper
Been assigned to write a research paper but don't know how to choose a topic? Find tips and suggestions for developing a topic related to your interests.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Has this ever happened to you? You've known all semester long that you have a major research paper due at the end of the term. It's now two weeks before the due date -- and for the life of you, you can't think of a topic. Assuming you come up with a topic soon, you'll have to cram all the research and writing into the last two weeks -- on top of studying for finals. If you've been here, you need some techniques for developing a topic.
Sometimes professors assign specific topics for writing assignments or will assign a general topic area. Many other times, however, choosing a topic or narrowing a general topic area to a specific topic will be your responsibility.
So, how do you choose a topic? Start with a topic that interests you. You'll be much more motivated to write the paper if it captures your interest. "A lot of times students have a choice of the topic they are going to be writing on," says Micaela, one of the students consulted for this article. "Take time to come up with a topic you really want to learn more about or think would be interesting. Don't just pick a topic for the sake of meeting the due date." Even if the paper is assigned in a class that doesn't interest you, you can probably find a topic related to the class that arouses your interest. Think about the classes that do interest you and consider whether you can make any connections between those classes and an appropriate topic for this class. Consider the types of books and magazines you are attracted to; any ideas there? Think about your hobbies, interests, and future ambitions. Do they relate to anything you could write about for this class? Is there anything currently in the news that you find fascinating and could turn into a paper topic?
Brainstorming is a technique that can help with both topic-development and organizing the paper itself. "I think brainstorming is the key to starting off a good written assignment," says Emily. "I think you have to lay your ideas down before you can make sense of what you are going to write." Brainstorming is a little like word association; you make a list of everything that you associate with the topic you have in mind.
The cardinal rule of brainstorming is that in making your initial list, no idea that you associate with your topic is too silly or far-fetched for consideration. Never censor yourself on the first go-round. Once you've listed 20 or so associations, you can begin to review your list. If you can't come up with 20, chances are you don't yet know enough about the topic to consider it your final selection. If, however, you still feel good about the topic, you may want to explore it further before ruling it out.
It's often helpful to put your list down after the initial brainstorming and come back to it later. Now, scrutinize all the silly and far-fetched associations; do they trigger any realistic ideas or approaches to the topic? If not, cross them off the list. Your edited list can serve as a starting point for developing the topic further, narrowing the topic down, and organizing the paper.
In the corporate world, brainstorming is generally conducted in groups -- the old "two heads are better than one" notion. You can enlist agreeable friends, roommates, family members, or your instructor in your quest to brainstorm paper ideas. Bounce some ideas off them. Ask for their feedback and contributions. Again no idea is too ridiculous during the first round of brainstorming. Remember the old adage, "Many a truth is spoken in jest." You never know what gems may be lurking amid ideas that seem truly absurd on first glance.
Get more guidance on topic development from How to Brilliantly Brainstorm a Topic from Scholastic.com
Once you've hit upon a topic, be sure it is narrow enough as professors frequently complain that student paper topics are too broad. Don't narrow your topic down so much, however, that it will be difficult to find research material on it.
Massage your topic into a research question to guide your exploration of source material. That way you won't just be amassing disparate facts as you gather your research; you will be conducting an organized search that builds toward addressing your research question. Let's say your topic is the effect of school performance on teen pregnancy. Your research question could be: To what extent does school performance affect teen pregnancy rates?
Final Thoughts on Developing Your Paper Topic
Don't hesitate to enlist your professor in helping you select and fine-tune your topic. If you've developed your topic with your instructor's assistance, she or he is bound to find it a more interesting paper and view it more favorably in the grading process.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.