2: Picking a research topic

Unlike when you wrote essays and were provided with a research topic, more often than not you will have to select your own topic for research when it comes to a dissertation, thesis, and sometimes even a research report.

Picking the right research topic is one way to improve your chances of being successful on your dissertation, thesis, or research report. If it is a topic that interests you and has relevance to what you are studying, you will find that you put more of yourself into the academic research and writing than if it was something that seemed dull. At the same time, you will have to make sure the topic can be researched so there must be relevant resources or access to information. And, it needs to be something that could provide some benefit, such as expanding on a base of knowledge or providing some type of recommendations that could improve a situation or solve a problem.

As you can see, it's not so easy but definitely very critical to getting off on the right foot with your research report, dissertation, or thesis. That's why we have devoted a whole chapter on how to choose the right research topic for your subject area, level of academic experience, and expectations from your University. The key topics in this chapter include:

  • Understanding what options for research topics are available;
  • Deciding on what personally interests you and is relevant;
  • Determining what other factors should be considered when selecting your research topic;
  • Keeping time factors in mind; and
  • Getting assistance from others to shape your research topic decision.

Let's get started on the criteria you need to make that first step toward completing your dissertation, thesis, or research report.

Chapter 2 contents:

2.1: Considering the options for a research topic

When it comes to a dissertation and research report, there are times where the research topic is actually pre-selected for you. This is often the case if you are an undergraduate and have never done this type of academic writing project. There are other times where a list of research topics are made available to you and then you can choose which one you would like to pursue.

While some of you may feel constrained by the idea that a topic would be selected for you, especially if none of them feel personally compelling to you, others reading this book may be breathing a collective sigh of relief. They may also be already getting ready to move onto our next chapter. Even if a research topic has been selected for you, it is good to still read this chapter because it gives you ideas that you can still incorporate as you work toward successful completion of your dissertation or research report.

And, even if a list of topics has been provided but you still have your own idea about what you would like to research, do not just give up. There is a chance that, by asking your supervisor or tutor and explaining your reasoning and interest in this topic, you may still be able to do it. As they say, "Don't ask, don't get." It is worth taking a chance, especially if you feel more motivated to research that particular topic than anything on the list provided.

Then, there are options where picking a research topic is up to you. Here are some tips if this is where you are at:

  • Start with your personal interests.
  • Think about your own experiences.
  • Reflect on what you studied throughout the course to see if any area hits you as interesting.
  • Read up the subject area to find an area that seems to be less explored and open for more insights.
  • Spend time at the library or on-line browsing what is available on your potential topic.
  • Prepare a written proposal, if requested, which provides the research question and approach to the topic as a means of getting approval to proceed. We will discuss how to prepare research proposals later on.
  • Be quick but not hasty in your decision. You often do not have much time to get your research topic (and proposal) together so be efficient and deliberate in your decision-making process rather than procrastinate. If you have more than one topic, now is the time to pick one!

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2.2: Deciding on your personal interests for your research topic selection

When we said, 'be quick but not hasty in your decision,' you might have been thinking, 'easier said than done.' So, let's back it up and focus on how to think about your personal interests and experiences as a basis for selecting a research topic. Motivation will be at your highest level when it is a topic that you care about or find interesting. This will get you through those times when you hit a barrier with your dissertation, thesis, or research report, so it is crucial to find something you are truly passionate about.

When these topics appear in your academic career, you have typically had plenty of time to find your niche and area of degree, so this helps provide you with background materials and experiences that you may have studied as part of course work. Of course, these experiences tend to be more general and you will need to have a very specific research topic that coves one highly focused area of what could be a larger topic or problem.

Here are some suggestions to help you narrow down your research topic ideas:

  • Make a list of the good and bad points of researching each topic, including how easy you think it may be to get information on that particular topic.
  • If you have not even got that far as to have more than one topic, go back and think more closely about past experiences, including a specific lecture or section of the course where you paid more attention or were roused from the nap you were taking at that point in the class.
  • Brainstorm topics by creating a mind map where you draw the main topic, which is most likely too general, into one main bubble and then start writing down ideas related to that main topic. From these, you may find a niche area that could become a focused research topic.

And, if this was not enough criteria, check out the next section for more factors that you should consider when picking your research topic for that upcoming dissertation, thesis, or research report.

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2.3: Other factors to consider when choosing a research topic

In the previous section, we provided some tips on how to find or even narrow your research topic selection. In this section, we are including some more factors that you could consider if you are not quite there yet. Here are some questions to ask yourself that illustrate the other type of criteria that should be included before you make that final decision on your research topic:

  • Can you see what type of research approach would work with a certain topic?
  • Can you put the topic into a research question that you could answer or a problem that you could look at solving?
  • Can you narrow the scope of research so that you do not go off on tangents?
  • Can you formulate a research plan of primary or secondary research or both? While this may change over time, it is good to know upfront that one direction or more is possible. More on this is further on in this section.

Before covering more insights into the importance of determining the availability of research resources, there are other considerations that may also help you:

  • Think about how much time a research topic could take as you do not want to be so ambitious that you end up taking on more than you can handle that then impacts the quality of your work.
  • When you are considering the time factor, also weigh in all the time you will need, including research, reading, writing and revising.
  • Also make sure that you will still have time to complete your other coursework and revising for exams as well as leaving yourself some time to have a personal life!
  • If you are completing a dissertation or thesis, you will have to ensure you have time allotted for portions of your work to go through an approval process and, in some cases, revision process.
  • Your research topic needs to have the type of depth and scope that illustrates your academic skills in terms of research, writing, and critical thinking. This means staying away from topics that have already been heavily researched so you do not end up simply regurgitating others' ideas and not illustrating you can think independently.
  • Consider how much support and supervision you will need as well as how much is available in your subject area. Every University and even department is different, so it is good to know the expectations of your supervisor or tutor as well as know how often you can meet with them to ask questions and get guidance. If you can select your own support system, go with someone who you feel comfortable with that might have inspired you on a course before or who knows a specific area that you are considering for your research topic.

Now, it's time to return to the idea of how many resources are available for your potential research topic as a key determinant of your research direction.

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2.4: Availability of resources for your potential research topic

While the objective of your dissertation, thesis, or research report is to provide some new insights and work on a topic that has not been heavily researched, you also do not want to end up with a topic that has no 'legs.' And, by that, we mean a topic that has hardly any information to work with, conceptually or as real world experience.

In order to avoid running into a problem later on when you discover there is not enough material to use as research for your academic writing project, here are some tips about checking first before finalising your research topic:

  • Check on secondary source material first, including how easy it is to access printed material like a hard copy of a book or a journal. You may also be able to access these types of materials through Google Books and Google Scholar or other on-line databases. Just make sure you can access all or a significant portion as many are only available on-line in snippet form or for a significant fee.
  • Find out what sources are available by taking some time to peruse the library, advanced on-line searches through search engines and scholarly databases, professional organisations and other types of institutions that cover your subject area.
  • Think about the type of data you will be collecting when you are undertaking primary research. For example, if you are gathering quantitative data, then you will need time to input and analyse the data. This will also mean that you get your hands on some type of statistical analysis software package. If you are doing qualitative research, then you need to make sure you have enough time to find interview candidates, transcribe the interviews, and then analyse the findings. Or, you may need to then conduct more than one type of research in order to create enough data to answer the research question or generate significant findings.

Consider some of the newest types of research, including government reports, speech or existing interview transcripts, pieces of legislation, and social media sources like blogs and social networking pages. These may be applicable to certain types of research.

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Chapter 2: In Summary

Final Thoughts on Planning for Your Research Topic Selection

Now that we have looked at the criteria for selecting a research topic as well as discussing some of the things to think about when making your research topic selection for a dissertation, thesis, or research report, here are some final thougths that summarise what is found in this chapter:

  • Make an informed decision that includes doing your research to a certain degree to see what is possible, relevant, and accessible for that particular research topic.
  • Talk to other students that have done a similar assignment or project to get an idea of how the process worked and how they ended up with the topic they used in their academic writing project.
  • Look at past work that has been produced to stir up the mind and get creative as well as get a sense of what is truly involved in doing different types of research.
  • Sketch out the structure of your report or use a proposal format to cover many of the tasks and components involved in the overall project to help stimulate research topics that can be achieved in the timeframe and skill level you have.
  • Despite considering other experiences and sources for what they did, it is still important to think independently and create your own research topic.
  • Follow the advice here on the criteria for finding your own topic through reading, reflection, and research that considers timeframe, the scope of the work involved, and what most interests you.

What's Next?

Now that we have looked at how to pick your research topic, you should be well on your way to tackle this all-important first step, think about the following plan of action before moving on to the next chapter:

  • Make time to think about your research topic selection and consider all of the potential options very carefully before going with your final answer. It means taking time but not too much time. As soon as you can gather the information and respond to each of the factors discussed here, the faster you can finalise your decision and move on to the next stage in the process of writing your thesis, dissertation, or research report.
  • Do not panic. Go to the basics that you already have in the form of lecture notes and your reading list. Look at what material you can online and see what elicits interest and excitement as well as what gets your mind buzzing.
  • Spend time at the library. Sometimes, touching the material and physically paging through it versus only focusing on what is online also further stimulates your mind and prepares it to focus on a topic that will work for your dissertation, thesis, or research project. While at the library, be sure to consult with library staff or even a specialist librarian in your subject area as they can put you in touch with the best resources as quickly as possible. They know their way around, so do yourself the favour of saving time and go straight to the source of knowledge in the library!

Now that you have done these steps and can proudly say that you are the owner of a research topic that you are truly excited about, it is time to go onto the next stage - more in-depth planning. For some of you, this planning process will take on a different route, but for many, planning now means writing a research proposal. That is what our next chapter will cover!

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