1. Brainstorm for ideas
Always choose a topic that interests you. To start coming up with ideas, try asking yourself these questions.
  • Is there a topic you covered in class that you want to learn more about?
  • Have you seen a story in the news lately that made you angry, anxious, interested, or happy?
  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem, or interest you would like to know more about?

Browse this list of topic ideas by subject from the University of Illinois.

Make sure your topic is unique. You should never use a topic you know is being used 
by another student, or a topic you have used before. Be aware of overused topic ideas.

If you get stuck, you can ask your instructor or a librarian for more ideas.
2. Read general background information
Read general encyclopedia articles on the top two or three topics you are considering. Reading a broad summary enables you to get an overview of the topic and see how your idea relates to broader, narrower, and related issues. It also provides a great source for finding words commonly used to describe the topic. These keywords may be very useful to your later research. If you can't find an article on your topic, try using broader terms or ask for help from a librarian.

Search the PUC library databases  for encyclopedias, like the following examples. 
Britannica Academic: The Online Encyclopedia Restricted Resource Some full text available Resource contains images

Oxford Reference Online Restricted Resource Some full text available
Salem Press Restricted Resource Some full text available

Scan current magazine, journal, or newspaper articles on your topic. Use the Discovery search box to get started, or browse available journal titles by subject. 
Discovery Search (EBSCO) Restricted Resource Some full text available
Publication Finder (EBSCO) Restricted Resource Some full text available
3. Focus your topic
A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad or narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic such as "the environment" is to limit your topic. Some common ways to limit a topic are:

by geographical area
Example: What environmental issues are most important in the Southwestern United States?

by culture
Example: How does the environment fit into the Navajo world view?

by time frame
Example: What are the most prominent environmental issues of the last 10 years?

by discipline
Example: How does environmental awareness effect business practices today?

by population group
Example: What are the effects of air pollution on children?

Remember that a topic may be difficult to research if it is too narrow. Some ways a topic can become too narrow:

locally confined - Topics this specific may only be covered in local newspapers, if at all.
Example: What sources of pollution affect the Angwin water supply?

recent - If a topic is quite recent, books or journal articles may not be available, but newspaper or magazine articles may. Also, Web sites related to the topic may or may not be available.
Example: What is the environmental impact of [event that happened last month]? 

Other possible challenges to your topic: 

broadly interdisciplinary - You could be overwhelmed with superficial information.
Example: How can the environment contribute to the culture, politics and society of the Western states?

popular - You will only find very popular articles about some topics such as sports figures, high-profile celebrities, and musicians.
4. Make a list of keywords
Keep track of the words that are used to describe your topic.
  1. When reading encyclopedia articles, background, and general information, look for words that best describe your topic. Because these words show up in articles about your topic, they are likely to be used by the authors of the sources you need.
  2. Find broader and narrower terms, synonyms, and key concepts for keywords to widen your search capabilities.
  3. Make note of these words and use them later when searching databases and catalogs. 
5. Be flexible
It is common to modify your topic during the research process. You can never be sure of what you may find. You may find too much and need to narrow your focus, or too little and need to broaden your focus. This is a normal part of the research process. When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable. Don't be afraid to change.
6. Define your topic with a research question
You will often begin with a word, develop a more focused interest in an aspect of something relating to that word, then begin to have questions about the topic. 

For example:

Ideas = Frank Lloyd Wright or modern architecture
Research Question = How has Frank Lloyd Wright influenced modern architecture?
Focused Research Question = What design principles used by Frank Lloyd Wright are common in contemporary homes?
7. Research your topic
Use the key words you have gathered to research in the catalog, article databases, and search engines. Find more information to help you answer your research question. 
You will need to do some research and reading before you finalize your topic. Does it seem like you can find enough information to answer your research question? You may not know your answer yet, but the inforamtion you find should begin to give you ideas about the argument and structure of your paper.
8. Create a thesis statement
Write your topic as a thesis statement. This may be the answer to your research question and/or a way to clearly state the purpose of your research. Your thesis statement will usually be one or two sentences that states precisely what is to be answered, proven, 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.

For help writing a thesis statement, see Tips and Examples for Writing Thesis Statements by OWL at Purdue.
Subject Specialist
Picture: Katy Van Arsdale

Katy Van Arsdale
Special Collections Librarian
Tel: 965-6244

Research FAQs
Links to common research questions and related guides.
This guide created with help from the University of Michigan library.