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Choosing a Research Topic

Last updated on Jun 15, 2023


Honing a research topic can feel overwhelming. You might at first think there is nothing written on your topic, OR you might think there is so much written on your topic that you can't say anything original or interesting. However daunting this might initially appear, keep in mind that most graduate research is about saying something original or about creating an intervention in the field.

While that might seem like a daunting task, remember that an intervention doesn't have to be something huge. It could be a new way of looking or thinking about two topics together, or a new way of reading an object or subject of study that hasn't been read that way before.

Keep in mind that your topic will change. A lot. Part of research and writing in graduate school is to learn how to do graduate level work. While you might have an initial idea about something, once you know more about your topic, your ideas will (and should change). If it were easy to pick a topic and write about it, it wouldn't be scholarship.


Narrowing Your Focus

Here are some tips that can help you narrow your focus and work to define and hone your topic as you go.

  • Focus on developing an open-ended question with a “how” or “why.” Also consider, "so what?" Why is your argument important? This is what we call a working thesis.

  • Your research question (and proposed answer, i.e. your thesis) should be current, relevant, and debatable. A good thesis or dissertation should make a claim that is specific and debatable about your subject of study. If it is broad and generalizing, it probably isn't a refined argument yet. Ask you self, is this true of my object(s) of study only? Or is it also true of most art works? Or pieces of literature? Or cultural objects? If your answer is "yes" to the latter questions, you probably need to keep narrowing and refining your topic.

  • A narrow topic is a stronger argument. This might seem counter intuitive at first. Some people think in order to write a long thesis, dissertation, or even just research paper, they need to have a broad catchall so they can include more things to talk about. This actually will dilute your argument and make your project harder to write about. An appropriately narrow topic is actually better because you will have more specific ideas that are interesting and innovative to a reader. One of the keys to a good project topic and having enough to say, is not having more objects to write about, but having more ideas about some specific, well chosen objects. If you are thinking deeply and critically, and are focused, your project will be more interesting than if you paint with broad strokes and generalize.
  • Identify how your research will contribute to and advance the literature in the field. Familiarize yourself with pre-existing research on your topic, how is your project unique and what does it contribute that doesn’t already exist?
    • If you are saying something that truly has never beed said, you still need to consider (and probably summarize what HAS been said before).
    • Not all of your research has to agree with you. In fact, it shouldn't. If there is a lot of research that says exactly what you are saying, why are you writing about it? The point of research is to understand a field and identify an idea that hasn't be previously considered. Your research should vary, show you are aware of other interpretations or ways of reading, show understanding of established scholarship in the field, and make a claim about how your work adds, amplifies, or revises, what already exists.
    • Specificity is important. Start general, but end up specific. For example, if the topic that interests you is climate change, it’s simply not feasible to write a concise thesis on such a broad, complex topic. However, you can write a well-researched, credible thesis on a specific, contextualized aspect of climate change.

  • Consider the accessibility of research materials to you when honing your topic. Are there any information gaps in the available scholarship that will present challenges for your research? Are there time, travel, or language restraints?

  • Check out these guides to developing your research question:
  • Consider what areas your faculty have special knowledge in and take advantage of it! Your advisor and other faculty members are resources to you. They’ve already spent years reading literature relevant to your field and have specialized knowledge that could inform or supplement your research. If you don't know who important scholars are in the field, and it's their area of expertise, ask who you should know about and read and take their recommendations seriously.