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United States Military Academy Library

Planning Research: Choosing a Topic

Advice on Choosing a Topic

       Topic search

Often your Professor or the content of the course you're in will dictate the research topics you have to choose from, but sometimes you'll have some leeway to come up with a topic or research area on your own. How do you settle on a topic? Here's some advice:

- Choose a topic you're interested in and want to learn more about - you'll be spending a lot of time researching and writing, so it's a good idea to make sure you're working with a topic that you like!

- Get started early! If you have a tough time finding sources for a topic, you'll need some extra time to gather those resources, and to enlist help from folks who can help you find them, which brings us to:

- Ask a Librarian for help! We've spent some time here and know a bit about popular paper topics - plus, we know where to find the info you need!

The Brainstorming Process

There are lots of exercises designed to help you brainstorm topic ideas when you're just not sure what to write about. Try one or more of the following approaches when you are getting started on your assignment:

If your instructor allows you to choose a topic for your paper, you must make sure that the topic is relevant to some aspect of the course - so as the course proceeds, be on the lookout for ideas covered in your textbook, course readings, or class discussions that appeal to you.

To narrow your focus to a particular topic, you can try a timed writing session during which you jot down on paper (in a list, a word cloud, or bullet points) any ideas that come to mind based on the topic of the course. At the end of the timed period, take a look at the things you've written; if a specific idea seems to appear more than once, or you discover you've written down ideas that are closely related, you may have found your topic!

You can use the following questions to help generate topic ideas:

  • - Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy?
  • - Did you read/see a news story recently that made you curious, angry or anxious?
  • - Do you have a personal issue, problem or interest you'd like to know more about?
  • - Do you have a research paper due for a class this semester?
  • - Is there an aspect of a class that you are interested in learning more about?

As you start to research your initial topic, you may have to narrow or broaden your scope. You may find something even more interesting as you go along. It is a normal part of the research process to alter and refine your topic; so stay flexible.

Try to narrow your topic to something manageable; if your topic is too broad: "Civil War" or "Elections," for example, you will find too much information and not be able to focus. Instead, think of smaller or more specifc aspects of a broad topic area: more narrowly defined topics such as "Day two during the Battle of Gettysburg" or "the US Presidential election of 2002" will help you find specific sources that will be very useful for your paper.

Anytime you're stumped - SEE A LIBRARIAN! We can help you with this entire process.

Once you pick a topic, you're ready for the next step: RESEARCH! Click on the "I have a topic - now what?" tab for more help!

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