Selecting a Research Topic

Selecting a Research Topic

How does one select a good research topic?  Sometimes circumstances dictate a topic, but usually, the researcher is given the autonomy to make the selection. The discussion that follows is most relevant to those instances.

Selecting a Topic Can Be an Emotional Experience

Choosing a research topic is one of the most agonizing and exhilarating endeavors for any researcher.

One type of challenge is trying to find a topic when there seem to be very few no options.  Another type of challenge is when there are too many rather than too few topics, so the issue is choosing just one out of dozens or possibly even hundreds of potential topics.  Either situation can be excruciatingly difficult.  Moreover, the topic chosen must be focused and specific enough to make a meaningful contribution to the literature but broad enough to be of interest to at least an audience of editors, reviewers, or readers. Selecting a good research topic is actually a skill: some are naturally better at it than others, but we can ALL become better at it with experience and learning.

The exhilaration can occur because, when properly selected, a strong topic can energize the researcher and substantially increase the probability of the finished product being highly well-received. To state the obvious, the topic often makes all the difference between a decent paper and an excellent one.

Creating Your Topic List

If you have not yet gathered a list of possible research topics over time, you may need to start from scratch. Below are some considerations for building a list of possible research topics.

  • Brainstorm for ideas: Taking the time to do a robust identification of ideas can help you get started on identifying suitable 
  • Be flexible: A valuable research topic may not be obvious at first glance and may need some fine-tuning before becoming the gem you’re hoping to find.
  • Choose something manageable: Can the topic be pursued in a reasonable timeframe using a reasonable amount of energy to yield a quality final product.

Narrowing It Down

Below is a list of questions to ask yourself while narrowing down your research topic list:

  • Is it of interest to you?
  • Is it likely to be of interest to editors, reviewers, and readers?
  • Are there data or other materials already available?
  • Does it apply to current issues of the day?
  • Is it a topic you know well?

Final Selection

Once you feel you have narrowed down your list to a manageable number, or even feel you have identified the right topic, take the following steps to test your topic:

  • Define your topic as a specific research question(s) or hypotheses
  • Develop a thesis statement based on your topic
  • Do extensive research and reading about your potential topic
  • If applicable, think about the study design

Moving Forward with Your Research Topic

Once you select a topic, the absolutely essential next step is to dive into the literature and find as much research as possible that has already been done. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to this. Doing a deep dive into an area of research is time-consuming and exhausting, but it has to be done if one is to (i) avoid writing a paper that’s already been done and (ii) fully leverage all the previous work.

SAS faculty, students, and alums are particularly well-versed in operating at the intersection of theory and application. This can be a substantial competitive advantage and point of differentiation in the work do. Why? Because many research topics are either overly conceptual (usually done by researchers at R1 institutions) or overly applied (usually done by consultants). As members of the SAS family, we understand the importance of balancing theory and practice, so this should definitely translate into our selection of research topics. It can and should lead to us developing more cutting edge research topics.

Still Struggling to Pick a Topic? Start at the End

An excellent source of research ideas is to read the conclusion section of articles that are relevant to the broad potential topic you are considering. With high frequency, those articles will contain a section or at least a few sentences discussing future research directions. This is often an intellectual gold mine of ideas and research topics just waiting to be exploited. Moreover, you can often contact the author of the article and ask for further guidance. Most are quite willing to help because they want to see you run with ideas they had.

Remember too that University of Phoenix and the School of Advanced Studies have created several research centers. These are excellent assets for you in thinking about potential topics, so be sure to get involved by joining one that matches your research interests. Joining means you can more easily network with fellow researchers leverage the expertise of your Center’s Research Chair.

Good luck with the research topic selection process!

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