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Starting Your Research Paper: Choosing Your Topic

No matter what your subject area, you'll probably have to write research papers. This guide can help.

Step 1: Brainstorming

Create a list of possible topics.  Don't ever settle for the first thing you think of.  It's better to spend some time coming up with a good topic that you enjoy.  Also, the more you've thought about your topic beforehand, the less frustrating and time-consuming it will be to actually write the paper.

Some things to think about:

  • Did your professor give you a list of topics to choose from?

  • What are your personal interests?

  • What have you covered in class?

  • What are the hot issues in current news and magazines?  

  • Who's your audience?

Step 2: Reviewing Your Assignment

Look over your professor's directions for the assignment: 

  • What type of assignment are you doing? A research paper? PowerPoint presentation?
  • How long should the finished product be? 5 pages? 10 pages? more?
  • Does your professor want you to use newer material or focus on current issues?
  • Does your professor want you to use scholarly material?
  • Are you supposed to present viewpoints, whether it be your own or others?

  • How many sources are you supposed to cite? And what types?

These are all important things to think about and things that may directly impact your topic.  If the assignment is only for a two-page paper, you don't want to delve in too deeply on any given subject.  Keep it simple.  However, when you get into longer papers, especially when your professor wants scholarly material used, you'll need to branch out a bit.  In that case, make sure to pick a topic that can easily fill up the space required.  If you can only find 3 sources on your topic for a ten-page paper, you should probably go back and pick another topic.

Step 3: Learn About Your Topic

Once you pick your topic, spend some time learning about it.  You don't have to spend a huge amount of time, but enough so that you know what's out there and what the hot issues are regarding your topic.  This is really important to do if you pick a topic that you're not very familiar with.  You might find that there is not enough written about your topic and you might need to broaden it.  Or you might find that there's so much written that it's overwhelming.  In that case, you'll want to narrow things down.


You want to write your paper about nursing.  You look in a general database for the term nursing.  You receive 121,986 full-text articles.  Do you really want to read that many articles?  Of course not.  Try narrowing your term.  Is there a particular aspect of nursing you might be interested in? Look at the articles you do have.  Do any of them look interesting?  Does the database give you narrower subject options? 

After learning more about nursing, you might decide that you're really interested in nursing ethics.  This search gives you 784 results.  Better, but it's still a lot of material.  How about nursing ethics regarding patients? That search gives you 71 sources -- enough sources that you can find what you need, but not so much that you get overwhelmed.

Step 4: Define Keywords

It seems logical that you should be able to type your topic into a database or Google and find exactly what you're looking for.  Unfortunately, that's rarely how things work.  Try coming up with keywords to make your searching more effective.

  • Only use the important terms of your topic.  (i.e. if your topic is nursing ethics regarding patients, "regarding" is not an important term -- don't include it).
  • Are there any alternative spellings? If you are looking in American resources for information regarding "colour," you're not going to find any.  You will, however, find information about "color."
  • What are the synonyms for the words you're using?  Some authors write about adolescents, others write about teenagers.

It's a good idea to write down all the possible keywords before you get started.  It will save you a lot of frustration while doing your research.  If one search doesn't retrieve the results you want, simply change up your keywords and see what you get then.  (And remember: when all else fails, go to the library and get help!)