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Graduate Student Academic Writing Guide

Developing a Topic


Developing a good research question can sometimes be the most difficult part of the research process. If you are struggling, use the tips provided in the boxes below.

Selecting a Topic - Video Overview

Video has been posted with permission from Bob Baker, Pima Community College.

Select Your Topic

Before selecting a topic or starting your research, make sure you understand your assignment. Consider:

  • Have you been assigned a topic or can you pick your own?
  • How many pages/words do you need to write? How long is your presentation?
  • Do you need to include specific types of sources (e.g. scholarly journal, book, etc.)?
  • When is the assignment due? How much time do you have to research?
  • Is currency of information important?

When in doubt, consult with your instructor.

Can’t think of a topic to research? 

Choose a topic that interests you
 and will hold your attention. If you do, the research will be more enjoyable!

Developing Research Questions

Wordle: research ??s

Once you have selected a topic, the next step is to develop research questions.

1. Write down what you already know or don't know about the topic

2. Use that information to develop questions

* Use probing questions (why? what if?)
* Avoid "yes" and "no" questions

What do I or don't I know about the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

I know:

- It's a law that protects animals and habitats that are in danger of extinction.
- At one point bald eagles and grizzly bears were on the list.
- There has been a lot of controversy about adding polar bears to the list.

I don't know:

- What it takes for an animal to be removed from the list.
- What the penalties are for violating this act.
- Whether or not the ESA protects only habitats within the U.S.

Research Questions

- What was the ESA designed to protect -- animals? ecosystems? both?
- What animals/habitats outside of the United States are covered by the act?
- What other countries have legislation to protect animals/habitats?
- What animals are currently on the endangered species list?
- How does an animal get added/removed from the list?
- What penalities are imposed on those who violate the act?

Identify Keywords

Keywords Are Important

The keywords you use in your research can make a big difference in your results:

  • Using the "right" keywords will speed up your research process
  • The "wrong" keywords can bring it to a halt

You can identify keywords to use by scanning:

  • Your research question(s)
  • Articles found from background research
  • Reference lists from the end of books and articles

If you are still struggling:

  • Try using terms that are often used interchangeably. For example, "global warming" and "climate change" are often used in exchange of each other.
  • Create a "Concept Map" or "Mind Map."
  • Try using a Thesaurus to help identify related words.
  • Brainstorm keywords with a librarian, your instructor, or a friend

Search Strategy Worksheet

Use the following worksheet to develop your topic and identify search terms:


Struggling to identify #keywords based on your #topic?

Try this idea... which words would you #hashtag if it was a #social network feed?


Find Background Information

Background research:

  • Provides a good overview of the topic if you are unfamiliar with it
  • Helps identify important facts -- terminology, dates, events, history, organizations, etc.
  • Can help refine your topic
  • Leads to bibliographies which provide additional sources of information

Background information can be found in:

  • a quick Google search
  • textbooks
  • dictionaries
  • general encyclopedias
  • subject-specific encyclopedias
  • article databases

Reference Databases:

Refine a Topic

If you are finding too much information, your research topic may be too B R O A D. Consider narrowing it to a more specific:

Time Civil War, Iron Age, 1920's, 18th Century
Location Europe, U.S., Denver, urban, eastern
Population age, race, gender, nationality, ethnic group, occupation
Event or Aspect government regulations related to cloning, Battle of the Bulge in WWII
Person or Group college students, Democrats, Republicans

Broad Topic: Global warming

Narrower Topic: How will climate change impact sea levels and the coastal United States?

If you are finding too little information, your topic may be too NARROWspecialized, or current. Use these strategies to broaden your topic.


Generalize your topic.  If your topic is the health effects of fracking on the Ft. Lupton community, broaden your topic to all Colorado communities or the United States.


If your topic is very current, there may not be books or journal articles available yet. Choose an alternative topic that is not so recent.
Database Choice Use other databases in your subject area or consider databases in a related subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective.
Synonyms Use a thesaurus to find synonyms for your topic. When reading background information, note the terminology that is used.
Related Explore related issues.
Expand / Remove Expand or remove: location, time period, aspect, event, population, person/group.

Example of a Narrow Topic:  Does cartoon viewing cause aggression in children under age five?

Broader:  What are the negative effects of TV on children and adolescents?

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