Refining a Research Topic

What is a “topic”?

A topic is the subject or theme of a discussion, essay, book etc…It is generally broad like education, sports, agriculture or politics. It is not a question or statement about anything – it is just what something is about.

The topic is just the beginning!

Your professor may tell you what topic(s) you can write about for an assignment or leave it up to you to decide. Either way, if you are writing a typical 5 – 8 page paper, you can see how a topic like “education” would be too big to handle.

Refining your topic

Sometimes referred to as narrowing down your topic, this is the process by which you choose an aspect of your topic to write about. There are many different ways to approach this task and how you approach it is often determined by the discipline you are working in – a paper about cell biology will take a different approach than one about World War ll. Here is one method to try just to get you started.

Ask yourself questions about your topic

Let’s say I want to write a paper about education. I know that is too broad a topic to write about so I need to figure out what I am going to focus on. I’m going to use the following questions to get more focus.

Is there a person or a particular group of people I want to focus on? Examples include:

  • Undergraduate students
  • Veterans
  • Grade school students
  • Career changers

Is there a particular place I want to focus on? Examples include:

  • Private schools
  • New York
  • University of North Dakota
  • Urban areas

Is there a particular time period I would like to focus on? Examples include:

  • Today
  • During the 19th Century
  • In the 1970’s
  • In ten years

Is there a particular point of view that I want to take on my topic? Examples include:

  • Historical
  • Psychological
  • Sociological
  • Political
  • Legal

Let’s say that for the topic of education I have picked grade school students as the group I am interested in, private schools as the place, in ten years as the time period and sociological as my point of view. It may take some playing around and experimentation but from here, I can start generating some research questions. For example:

Do grade school students who attend private schools perform better at the high school level than public school students?