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How do I Identify a Research Topic?

For many students, picking a research topic can be one of the most challenging things about writing a research paper! The strategies below can help you get started.

  • Review your course readings. Consider if anything has come up in the course that you were interested in and would like to learn more about? 
  • Do some background reading. Search Google or a reference source like Credo for background information and to get a better sense of your topic and what issues or questions could be worth learning about further. 
  • Brainstorm. There are many different ways to brainstorm. Check out UNC's Writing Centre brainstorming handout to learn about several different methods. 
  • Create a concept map. Watch the video below from Belk Library to learn how to create a concept map that can help you identify potential research topics.

As you learn about your topic, it's very likely your research topic will change. Doing research is a bit like taking an unstructured walk where you have some sense of where you are but are open to exploring different paths. When you're doing research, you may come across an interesting article that takes you in a different direction.

You may also find that there is little or no research on the research topic you picked initially and have to change or refine it. That's OK and a normal part of doing research.

How do I Find Background Information for my Research Topic?

Many students jump right into research by searching for peer-reviewed articles on their topic and then feel a bit lost. Doing background reading on your topic is a great way to orient yourself to a topic, learn about the key issues and debates, and become familiar with the language being used to discuss your topic.

To do background reading on your topic: 

  1. Look at your course syllabus and readings. Are there any recommended or required readings that relate to your topic? Does your textbook have sections related to your topic? 
  2. Search Google & Wikipedia - Yep, that's right, Wikipedia is OK here! While Wikipedia is often not a great source to cite in your papers as it doesn't provide the latest research, it can be a starting point for getting familiar with a topic and the language used to write about a topic. The reference lists in Wikipedia may also point you to additional sources where you can learn a bit more. 
  3. Consult library reference sources such as Credo Reference. Credo provides definitions, encyclopedia entries, and maps like the ones below that link you to related topics.  

As you read, pay attention to the terminology used to write about your topic. These can help you create a keyword list that you can use to search for sources on your topic and help you think of different topics s or research questions.