How do you decide what to write about when confronted with a research paper? You want a focused topic!
Here are some things to consider:
Make sure your topic meets the assignment requirements. Ask your professor for feedback if you are unsure.
Choose a topic that is interesting to you. It may seem obvious, but this will make the research process more fun and engaging for you.
Consider the scope of your topic. If your topic is too broad it may be hard to find information that is focused and relevant; if your topic is too narrow it may be hard to find any information at all.
Here's one strategy for developing a research topic once you have a broad topic in mind:
Background research will help you develop your topic and hone or change it in more appropriate ways. Knowing more about your topic's background can only help you develop a more effective topic, and therefore, research paper.
Brainstorm concepts. Once you think of a broad topic that interests you, try to brainstorm all of the words or concepts you can that might be related to that topic (and write them down!). For example, if your topic is "polar bears," you might think of the following words and topics in association: ice, cubs, pollution, hunting, diet, climate change, and environmental icon.
Develop a research question. Once you have come up with a broad topic and done some background research, you may want to develop a research question, or a question you're going to answer in your paper by doing more, in-depth research.
What's your general approach to the topic? Think about some general approaches that may help you further develop your topic: use a historical angle by focusing on a particular time period; a geographical angle, focusing on a particular part of the world; or a sociological angle, focusing on a particular group of people.
Start doing some exploratory, in-depth research. As you do more in-depth research, like looking for scholarly articles, books, and other sources to include in your paper, you can and probably will modify or refine your topic based on what you find.
Research is a dynamic process. Don't be afraid to discover new things and modify or refine your topic.
The topic development process will help you to develop your thesis, which is essentially your proposed answer to your research question. You will then be ready to use the sources you've found, and find more sources in order to support that thesis, or to answer your research question.
Here's an example of how the topic development process above can lead you to a thesis:
Resources that can help you develop your topic:
Your instructor, course readings, class notes, Wikipedia, and Google can all be helpful in terms of getting ideas for broad topics.
A Research Guide for a particular subject created by a subject librarian is great for helping you choose where to begin your research. These online guides will identify encyclopedias, books, databases, and other materials to help you get started with research. You can also ask a librarian at the Library Service Desk.
Library resources like Credo Reference Unlimited, Gale Virtual Reference Library, CQ Researcher and subject-specific encyclopedias can help you come up with topic ideas because they provide great overviews and introductions to topics. You can find links to these kinds of resources in the Research Guides mentioned above. These will probably not be scholarly sources you can use in your paper, but they may lead you to more in-depth, scholarly resources that you will want to use in your paper.