Choosing a research topic is the most difficult part of a project, and the most important. You want a topic that is interesting enough to inspire enthusiasm on your part, broad enough to provide plenty of material, and narrow enough to make a focused approach possible. Preferably it will be a topic that can also be used as a basis for any future research in the field.
Ultimately, the choice of topic can make or break your project, and it’s the first choice you’ll be required to make. Selecting a topic that has a dearth of material or limited potential for progress could result in much time and energy being wasted before you realize the error of your choice.
As such, here are a few tips that may assist in preventing such setbacks.
Look for Inspiration: Listing the topics that have been covered by your course can facilitate the brainstorming process, and your course material and lecture notes are a good place to start. Online resources such as Google can also be extremely helpful; simply enter something along the lines of “suggestions for research projects” and look for results relevant to your particular field.
News websites are also an invaluable resource, whether it be those of mainstream news providers like The Guardian or BBC, or websites catering to a specific field, such as Sciencedaily.com.
Ask questions: Biology.anu.edu.au suggests that you consider:
-The questions pertaining to your field that really grab your attention
-The subjects that motivate you to seek additional readings
-The kind of activities that you enjoy, and the kind of research that would grant you opportunities to engage in those activities.
These are important criteria to take into account when ensuring that your topic not only provides you with a wealth of material, but a desire to seek out as much material as you can.
Ascertaining the worth of the topic: Once you’ve settled on an idea for a topic, library.ucsc.edu suggests looking it up in standard reference material, such as encyclopedia or dictionaries. This will help you ascertain the availability of material, and provide you with some ideas as to which areas you should look into first.
Chronicle.com suggests looking at the attendance numbers for seminars and talks dealing with subjects related to your topic. This will assist in gauging the level of interest.
Narrowing Down the Topic
Once you have a topic, you’ll want to narrow it down or broaden it according to the desired length of the paper.
Library.ucsc.edu suggests writing out your topic as a question, for example “is memory loss related to aging?”, then determining how many elements make up that question and whether each presents an area of research that can be expanded upon or narrowed down according to your needs.
In this case, ‘memory loss’ and ‘aging’ each presents a broad area of research that can be linked to the topic. If you need to narrow down the focus, you could limit one of those areas to a specific subcategory, for example by replacing ‘memory loss’ with a specific form of memory loss, such as ‘Alzheimer’s’.
Evaluating your Topic
According to George Springer – chairman of the aeronautics and astronautics department at Stanford University, “”The most successful research topics are narrowly focused and carefully defined, but are important parts of a broad-ranging, complex problem.” (Chronicle.com)
Chemistry professor and author Robert Smith suggests using the following criteria to ascertain the worthiness of your topic:
-Will it inspire enthusiasm, and will it be able to sustain that enthusiasm over the period of time required for research?
-Is the problem solvable, and will solving it be of some benefit to your field?
-Will it contribute to other areas of research in the field? Can any information acquired through this research be utilized in future research projects?
-Is it manageable in size?
-Is it likely to attract interest from scholars in your field?
-What skills will you have demonstrated by conducting an investigation of this topic?
Whatever topic you end up choosing, it’s important that it be your own choice. Selecting from a list of topics suggested by an adviser should be a last resort, as finding your own will not only develop the thinking processes required to ask compelling questions in your field; it will also demonstrate your capacity for independent thought.