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Research step-by-step: 1) Develop a topic

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Questions? Ask a Librarian

Picking a topic

Remember, you can always ask a librarian for help.

On this page, you will see how to


Pick a topic

Make sure you pick a topic or write a thesis statement that is of interest to you AND fulfills your assignment.  Be creative, but check with your professor to be sure you are on the right track. 


Use your text books, conversations with friends, family, and professors, newspapers, and the internet as sources of ideas for your papers. A Google search might be a way to get a topic idea, but is not the way to do research for that topic.  Other great places to get topics are subject specific encyclopedias the librarians can show you. Many are electronic. Your topic should not be too big, too small, too generic, or too specific.  How do you tell?  Consider the following evolution of a topic.


First, ask if you can answer your topic question with a 'yes' or a 'no'?  For example:  Are the Olympics a good thing?  This is a yes or no question and, therefore, not a well defined topic.


Develop questions you want to answer in your research

Ask yourself, "What are some of the attributes or aspects of my topic that are of interest to me?"

Take your topic and ask it from the perspective of every kind of class you have ever seen in the schedule:  Ask a historical question, an economic question, a science (biology or other), a global question, a sociological question, a political question, an environmental question, a literature question, and so on.


For example, let’s say you want to do a paper on the Olympics.

Create questions on your topic (Olympics) based on: 

a specific geographic location.                              

a specific time period.

a historical overview or perspective.

their economic impact.

their political impact on human rights.

impact of social media.


the education of athletes.

a comparison of professional athletic competitions.

the physiology of athletes.

the impact of athlete depiction in stories/movies/advertising on motivation to succeed.

What else?


Develop questions in the areas that are of interest to you and that fulfill your assignment’s guidelines.  Check back with your professor along the way to be sure you are on the right track.



Identify the words to use when searching for information

Now that you have picked a topic, dive into it!   


Write your topic down and/or the questions you are going to answer.


Identify the key words* or concepts.   If you identify words such as impact, compared to, related to, benefits of, be sure and come up with good alternative words for them because words like impact, compared… are rarely good choices to use in a computer search.  An alternative is not to use such words as your key words.  Write alternative words for all your key concepts or for each question you might have. There is one example below (which may be too simplistic for some classes).


Topic:     What is the impact of the Olympics on the countries that host them?


Key Concepts

Synonyms and alternative words for key concepts from your topic sentence


Economic, environmental, construction, population; relocation national pride, tourism,


Olympiad, Olympic Games

Countries that host

Countries, cities, Tokyo, Mexico City, Beijing, Athens, Japan, Greece


After making this chart, we can see that there are very many things that are impacted.  Perhaps, therefore, this is too broad a topic?  It could be focused a number of ways.  Here are two: 1) focus on  many impacts on a specific host city such as London or 2) focus on one kind of impact (environmental, for example) on the last three hosting cities.

Do you see how your topic can evolve as you dive in?  Don’t get too far away from your initial topic without checking with your professor.

Make this chart for your topic. You will use it to search for information for your paper or project!


* Do not confuse the term “key words” here with “keywords” you sometimes see in a database. "Key words" here mean the main ideas within your topic.  "Keywords" as used in databases is a bit misleading.  It actually means that the database will look for whatever you type in many places, not just the titles or the authors in the database. More on this later. 

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