Choose a Topic Tutorial

Choosing a topic does not seem like it should be difficult. Unfortunately, it often is.

Man with head in hands

Choosing a right topic can often make the entire process much easier. This can be done if you follow these steps.

1. Pick a topic that interests you.

The topics we can choose are often dictated by assignments, classes, professors, etc. But, find a topic you like will make the process more rewarding.

If you have an open-ended assignment, browsing the databases listed below can help you decide on a topic by giving you a jumping off point. They also have the added benefit of suggesting many different resources once your topic is found:

  • CQ Researcher
    This database publishes reports that provide overviewed, background information, opinion pieces, and lots of references for a large collection of topics. A really great place to start, if you aren’t certain what’s out there.
  • Opposing Viewpoints in Context
    Much like CQ Researcher, this database provides overviews, media, background information, and lots of references on specific topics that are known to be in the public eye. A great place to browse for topics, or to find out more about one you’re considering.
  • Google News or Yahoo News – specific topics
    Google or Yahoo news can show you topics that are currently being discussed. It can be a good place to start.

2. Find information on your topic.

You may find a topic like "Obesity" or "Fracking" interesting enough to write about, but not know very much beyond what you've noticed in the news.

Girl frowning at computer

That's okay! Even for subjects that you feel that you know a lot about, it's hugely beneficial to get background information. That's where encyclopedias and other reference materials come in. You can use them to discover definitions, general trends, subtopics, and other items of interest about the subject you are interested in. Once this information is gathered, you can use it conduct more effective research.


Didn't think you'd see this here, did you?

Wikipedia is a really good example of a reference source: a place you go when you want to see what something is. Just like many other encyclopedias, it can give you a basic overview, related topics, and even a brief history of your subject. However, because pages can be edited by anyone (your mom, your little brother, your nosy neighbor down the street), there’s a risk that someone has messed around with the information and it’s completely wrong. On top of that, you can’t cite it. So feel free to use it, but make sure you use it wisely.

  • Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVR)
    Imagine this as Wikipedia’s older, more reliable sibling, the one you can count on to not exaggerate or just plain lie. It works the same way, but people who have definitely done their research are the ones writing the entries. What’s more, unlike Wikipedia, most instructors will allow materials from GVR to be cited in your assignment. Information isn’t worth very much if you can’t use it!
  • Oxford Reference Online, and Sage Reference Online
    Just like the GVR, but from different publishers.

Now that you’ve done your background research, your topic should be shaping itself more clearly to you. It can help at this point to create a concept or mind map that demonstrates the interconnected aspects of the topic and how they relate to each other.

It’s now that you need to take the aspects of the topic that are of most interest to you, and form them into a question that your research assignment will answer. This question will guide your research forward, helping you to stay focused and relevant.

3. Create a research question.

When the time comes to do the bulk of your research, three different things can happen with your results.

  • Too much information to sort through.
  • Not enough information to use. 
  • Information that is tangential and irrelevant. 

It’s not pleasant to be on the verge of writing a paper or script, only to find that your topic is too new, obscure, narrow, or broad to find enough supporting research to complete. So it’s important to try it out, and to change your topic, if you find yourself with too many, too few, or irrelevant results.

Some good general tools to try a preliminary search in are:

  • LIONSearch
    This tool is a single interface to the combined resources provided by the Penn State University Libraries. What that means is that LIONSearch covers almost everything that the library has access to, both print and digital collections. The Google of the library, if you will.
  • Academic Search Complete
    Comprehensive scholarly, multi-disciplinary full-text database, with more than 5,300 full-text periodicals - in other words, lots of great stuff!
  • The CAT
    This is the library’s traditional catalog, but it doesn’t only search books. Ebooks, videos, journals, and many other types of media can be found here as well

While you’re searching, if you find a few articles or books that you really like, use the GET IT! button Use the GET IT button to find the full text, or the I WANT IT button to have a book pulled from the shelf for you for easy pickup. to find the full text, or the I Want It GET IT buttonbutton to have a book pulled from the shelf for you for easy pickup.

4. Do a test search on your topic.

It’s now that you need to take the aspects of the topic that are of most interest to you, and form them into a question that your research assignment will answer. This question will guide your research forward, helping you to stay focused and relevant.

Example questions might be:

  • How has the obesity epidemic affected Native communities in the United States?
  • How has the economy of North Dakota been affected by fracking?

As you can see, these questions take specific aspects of the broader topics of “obesity” and “fracking,” and narrows them both into focused queries that a thesis statement then begin to answer.

5. Broaden or narrow your topic as needed.

If during your test search, you found too many or too few results, you may need to either narrow, or broaden your topic to make it more manageable.

  • To narrow your topic, consider making it more specific. Focus on one aspect of your topic. This can include geographical area, culture, time frame, discipline, and population group (age, gender, ethnic group, profession, etc).
  • To broaden your topic, consider backing away from your more specific descriptors. Topics that are very narrow are often locally confined, recent, or focusing on very specific aspects of a larger whole (eg. Lady Gaga vs. Pop Music). 

If you're having any difficulty with this step, or any other, feel free to Ask a Librarian.


Photo Credits
Hess, P.A. (2008, October 21). Frustration.
mars, b. Photo of a woman thinking