Where Do I Start?

Choosing a research topic

To gather useful information for a research project you need to develop a focused research topic. When you choose your topic, consider the steps:

Need to do some research? Not exactly sure where to start? Students who are new to doing research often feel some of what's listed below:

  • Anxiety: How do I start this project? I feel stressed.
  • Frustration: I have other things to do. This is a stupid assignment.
  • Disinterest: I just want to get this done. This is boring.
  • Curiosity: I know how to do research. I'm sure I'll find what I need.

It's normal to feel any or all of these reactions. How you react depends largely on these factors:

  • Your past success or failure at research
  • Your general knowledge about how to do research
  • Your familiarity with the sources available to you.

Prepare before you search

Good news - you are invited to a party!
Bad news - It is in a different town.

Do you hop in your car and start driving, hoping to find it by sheer luck?

No-if you want to get there in time, you will probably want to focus your search with a map and some instructions. The following steps can help you save time and lots of frustration.

  • Understand the assignment
  • Brainstorm topic ideas
  • Find something about the topic that interests you
  • List key concepts and keywords

What is the Assignment?

Before you choose a topic, make sure you know what your final research project should look like. What exactly is the assignment? Each instructor or course has different requirements and purposes. Ask your teacher questions on parts you don't understand. Make sure you have approval from your teacher on your topic-it may save you a lot of anxiety and frustration later.


Brainstorm to get research topic ideas. Choosing a topic and getting your question right is probably the most important part of starting any research. Be specific-don't overgeneralize! Your topic must be narrow and focused enough to be interesting, yet broad enough to find enough information.

Always choose a topic that interests you. Use these questions to help you gather topic ideas. Curious or excited about a current social or political controversy? Have a personal interest you'd like to know more about? Look at some of these web sites for more ideas.

Are you interested in current events, government, or something in the social sciences? Try Speakout.com (www.speakout.com)

Are you interested in health or medicine? Try Healthfinder.gov or Medline Plus (www.medlineplus.gov).

Are you interested in the humanities-art, literature, music? Look at web sites from the National Endowment for the Humanities (http://edsitement.neh.gov/websites.html) or Voice of the Shuttle (http://vos.ucsb.edu).

For many other subject areas: Try Opposing Viewpoints web site. For other topic ideas ask at the reference desk.

General Background Information

Scan a general encyclopedia article on two or three topics you're considering. This will give you an overview ideas on how the topic relates to other issues.

Using your topic ideas, browse the Encyclopedia Britannica (http://search.eb.com) from the Library web pages.

Focus in on Your Topic

Any topic will be difficult to research if it is too broad or too narrow. A great way to fine-tune a topic is to use the method traditionally used by newspaper reporters-Who?-What?-Where?-When?-Why?

Who is involved?

A particular age group, occupation, ethnic group, men, women, etc. For example, if you are interested in writing about the environment, you might focus on the effects of air pollution on infants and children.

What is the problem?

What is the issue facing the "who" in your topic-health concerns, job and economic trends, contaminated drinking water? Try stating your topic as a question. For example, if you're interested in finding out about drinking water, you might ask: Are there preventive measures that government can take to keep the drinking water supply from being contaminated?

Where is it happening?

A specific country, region, city, physical environment, rural vs. urban? For example: What environmental issues are most important in the southern plains area of the U.S.

When is this happening?

Is this a current issue or an historical event? Will you discuss the historical development of a current problem? Example: How does environmental awareness affect business practices today

Why is it happening / Why is this a problem?

You may want to focus on causes, or argue the importance of this problem by outlining historical or current ramifications. Or you may want to persuade your instructor or class why they should care about the issue. Example: Why are some states seriously investigating wind power opportunities now?

Be flexible. It is common to modify your topic during the research process.

Identify key concepts

  • Analyze for concepts
  • Keep track of the words used to describe your topic.
  • To successfully search online article databases and the Internet you need to be specific in asking for what you want-and sometimes creative.
Research Idea Concept 1 Concept 2 Concept 3
I want to know about smoking. smoking
Does smoking cause cancer? smoking cancer
To what extent do teens know smoking causes cancer? smoking cigarettes cancer teens, teenagers, adolescents

Add synonyms and related words. List synonyms and related terms (keywords) for each concept. This will expand your search capabilities.

Example: I want to look at using wind to generate power in Oklahoma.
Keywords to use: wind power, wind generation, wind generators, Oklahoma (might also try Plains states, United States)

Example: Some sources may use capital punishment while others may use the term death penalty.
The more related terms you try while doing research, the more successful you will be.

Restate your topic

Example, if your topic were the ethics of human cloning, possible research questions could be:

  • Why do some people and groups oppose human cloning?
  • What is the history of human cloning?
  • How would society benefit from human cloning?

Research and Read More

Use the keywords you've gathered to quickly search in the Library catalog, article databases and Internet search engines. Find more information to help answer your research question.

Can you find enough information on this topic? Do you need to try other sources? Need tips on search words or how to talk to a search engine? Or is it time to modify the topic instead?

Formulate a Thesis Statement

Write your topic as a thesis statement. The thesis statement is usually one or two sentences that state precisely what will be proved, answered, or what you will inform your audience about your topic.

The development of a thesis assumes there is sufficient evidence to support the thesis statement.

More examples:

If you started to brainstorm with... Your focused research question might be... Your keywords might include... Your thesis statement might be...
Sharing music files Does sharing music files infringe on musicians' rights? Music, down-loading, file sharing, P2P, Internet, copyright, musicians Sharing music files has been the center of a huge Internet copyright controversy. People wanting to share music they love are at legal odds with the music industry wanting to control the music it produces.
Sports and violence Are professional athletes more violent than the average male? professional athletes, sports, violence, abuse Many factors contribute to a higher than average rate of violence among professional athletes.
Low voting participation by 18-25 year olds Why is voter turnout for 18-25 year olds so low? voter turnout, voter behavior, young adults, teenagers, youth, college students, [18-25 year olds not as effective] When young people don't vote, their ideas may be unfairly ignored by elected officials of government. What motivates some to vote and many others to neglect this civic duty?

--Adapted from University of Utah Health Science Center Library "Information Navigator"