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Ready, Set, Research

This guide is geared toward students who need to prepare research papers and/or speeches for college courses.

Select a Meaningful Topic


  • Does it fit the guidelines of the assignment?
  • Are there plenty of academically appropriate sources available on this topic?
  • Is the topic meaningful to me

Whenever you are given the freedom to do so, select a topic that genuinely interests you, about which you already have something to say.  A personal inventory is a great way to find meaningful topics:

  • What are you passionate about? What kinds of activities, interests and beliefs define you as a human being?
  • What issues affect you or someone close to you? Physical, psychological, and other personal issues can provide great research topics!
  • What societal issues have the most profound effect on your life? Which do you feel strongly about?

If you are still struggling (because brainstorming doesn't work for everyone) try exploring some of our Databases to Help you Pick a Topic.

Develop Your Topic

Researchers can spend their lives exploring topics. They publish books and articles, conduct studies, present at conferences, teach classes, etc.   As a student, you don’t have a lifetime to devote to your topic and you probably won’t be publishing a book. Rather, you will have just a few weeks, and your end product will likely be something along the lines of a 6-10 page research paper or a 5-8 minute speech.

Once you identify a strong topic you need to find a manageable focus for your work.  Focusing involves clearly defining the specific aspect of the topic you will explore. Think of formulating a guiding research question that captures the main idea of your research. In short: what are you trying to figure out?

Things to consider when focusing:

  • How long is the finished product supposed to be? What can you reasonably cover in that amount?
  • What is your task? Are you arguing? Comparing and contrasting? Writing a cause and effect paper? Solving a problem?

Here are some methods by which you can begin to focus. 

Go back to “why” you chose your topic. What made you choose your topic in the first place? Sometimes articulating the “why” out loud will directly reveal the direction you want to go with your topic.

Do some preliminary reading.  Take a few minutes to run your topic through the library catalog and the library databases. Note how others are exploring your topic.  What “grabs” you?  What doesn’t?

Talk to others about your topic. Check in not only with your professors and librarians, but talk to your friends, family and classmates about your topic. Having your topic reflected by someone else can often spark great ideas, and any chance to articulate your topic “out loud” is beneficial.

Guiding Research Question vs. Thesis

If you think of your focus as a single, overriding question guiding the exploration of your topic, you can think of your thesis statement as an answer to that question. Your thesis:

  • Defines your point of view on your topic
  • Briefly outlines your arguments
  • Is often only fully developed toward the end of your research process

Examples: From Topics to Guiding Questions to Thesis Statements

Broad Topic: Zombies

Guiding Question: What is the allure of zombies in American popular culture?

Thesis: Zombies are a huge part of the current American zeitgeist because they are a physical (and fanciful) embodiment of our post 9/11 fears.


Broad Topic: Teen drug use

Guiding Question: Are reality-based drug awareness programs any more effective than a “just say no” approach?

Thesis: An abstinence-based “just say no” approach to drug prevention is ineffective for most media-savvy Millennials, and a much more effective approach is to accept that many young people will experiment with drugs and will best be served by receiving honest, accurate information from authority figures.