Selecting a Research Paper Topic
Having to select your own research paper topic may be intimidating, but it is a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. When you select your own research paper topic, you are able to spend your time on a matter that truly concerns you. However, the question that inevitably arises is “What concerns me?” Some of us are passionately concerned with certain issues and may have, in fact, been doing research on a topic for years. Others of us have minds that either go completely blank or become flooded with dozens of seemingly unimportant topics. For those of us in the latter category, it takes work, often quiet time spent alone, to decide upon an appropriate research paper topic.
The three main requirements of a research paper topic are that it must be manageable, timely, and personally relevant. A manageable topic can be adequately covered in the length of the assigned paper. “Solving the Crisis in the Middle East” is certainly too vast and complex a topic for a 6-8 page research paper (let alone a two hundred page book). On the other hand, it would be difficult to get more than a page out of “The Differences Between Sweet Potatoes and Yams.” A research paper should also be timely: writing about new developments in voice recognition systems will be much more interesting, and useful, than an overview of fur trapping methods. Information about timely topics is also more plentiful and more easily verified. (There is a time and place for examining historical topics, but such research generally requires skills beyond those of first year college students.) Lastly, a topic should have some personal relevance. This will provide the writer with not only firsthand knowledge about the topic, but also interest and motivation. Many students gain considerable knowledge and insight by writing about a disease or condition that is affecting them or a family member. Some students use the research paper as an opportunity to write about a decision they need to make, perhaps whether to send their children to public or private schools or whether or not to undergo cosmetic surgery. Still other students are able to document their lifelong interests in a particular hobbies, perhaps needlepoint or model rocketry, through the process of writing a research paper.
It can sometimes take a little work to take a topic for which you have a vague interest and turn it into something that is acceptable for a research paper. Below are two examples:
Student A is concerned with saving the environment. Her topic is timely, but too broad and without a personal connection. By focusing on “Options for Recycling Household Batteries in the San Fernando Valley” she narrows her topic and limits it to her individual household and local community, both of which she is integrally connected to.
Student B has always been fascinated by sharks. Again the topic is timely, but too broad and without personal connection. By focusing on “Avoiding Shark Attacks on Southern California Beaches,” Student B not only narrows his topic, but redirects it in a way that personally involves him with the subject matter. In addition, his research might help him decide if, in fact, he want to be a marine biologist and determine what skills and training that career will require.
Some writing instructors may assign a research paper topic, provide a list of topics to select from, or have other stipulations about topics. In all cases, be sure to comply with your instructor’s specific instructions.