Do not assume that choosing a research problem to study will be a quick or easy task! You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study and you choose a topic from that list; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.
I. How To Begin: You are given the topic to write about
Step 1: Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?" The main concepts is this problem are: European Union, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].
Step 2: Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the USC Libraries Catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary library databases such as ProQuestt or subject-specific databases found here. Use the main concept terms you developed in Step 1 and their synonyms to retrieve relevant articles. This will help you refine and frame the scope of the research problem. Don’t be surprised if you need to do this several times before you finalize how to approach writing about the topic.
NOTE: Always review the references from your most relevant research results cited by the authors in footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography to locate related research on your topic. This is a good strategy for identifying important prior research about the topic because titles that are repeatedly cited indicate their significance in laying a foundation for understanding the problem. However, if you’re having trouble at this point locating relevant research literature,ask a librarian for help!
ANOTHER NOTE: If you find an article from a journal that's particularly helpful, put quotes around the title of the article and paste it into Google Scholar. If the article record appears, look for a "cited by" reference followed by a number. This link indicates how many times other researchers have subsequently cited that article since it was first published. This is an excellent strategy for identifying more current, related research on your topic. Finding additional cited by references from your original list of cited by references helps you navigate through the literature and, by so doing, understand the evolution of thought around a particular research problem.
Step 3: Since social science research papers are generally designed to get you to develop your own ideas and arguments, look for sources that can help broaden, modify, or strengthen your initial thoughts and arguments [for example, if you decide to argue that the European Union is ill prepared to take on responsibilities for broader global security because of the debt crisis in many EU countries, then focus on identifying sources that support as well as refute this position].
There are least four appropriate roles your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis:
- Sources of criticism -- frequently, you'll find yourself reading materials that are relevant to your chosen topic, but you disagree with the author's position. Therefore, one way that you can use a source is to describe the counter-argument, provide evidence from your review of the literature as to why the prevailing argument is unsatisfactory, and to discuss how your own view is more appropriate based upon your interpretation of the evidence.
- Sources of new ideas -- while a general goal in writing college research papers in the social sciences is to approach a research problem with some basic idea of what position you'd like to take and what grounds you'd like to stand upon, it is certainly acceptable [and often encouraged] to read the literature and extend, modify, and refine your own position in light of the ideas proposed by others. Just make sure that you cite the sources!
- Sources for historical context -- another role your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis is to place issues and events in proper historical context. This can help to demonstrate familiarity with developments in relevant scholarship about your topic, provide a means of comparing historical versus contemporary issues and events, and identifying key people, places, and things that had an important role related to the research problem.
- Sources of interdisciplinary insight -- an advantage of using databases like ProQuest to begin exploring your topic is that it covers publications from a variety of different disciplines. Another way to formulate how to study the topic is to look at it from different disciplinary perspectives. If the topic concerns immigration reform, for example, ask yourself, how do studies from sociological journals found by searching ProQuest vary in their analysis from those in law journals. A goal in reviewing related literature is to provide a means of approaching a topic from multiple perspectives rather than the perspective offered from just one discipline.
NOTE: Remember to keep careful notes at every stage or utilize a citation management system like EndNotes or RefWorks. You may think you'll remember what you have searched and where you found things, but it’s easy to forget or get confused.
Step 4: Assuming you've done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature, you're ready to prepare a detailed outline for your paper that lays the foundation for a more in-depth and focused review of relevant research literature [after consulting with a librarian, if needed!]. How will you know you haven't done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature? A good indication is that you start composing your paper outline and gaps appear in how you want to approach the study. This indicates the need to do further research on the research problem.
I. How To Begin: You are provided a list of possible topics to choose from
Step 1: I know what you’re thinking--which topic from this list my professor has given me will be the easiest to find the most information on? An effective instructor should never include a topic that is so obscure or complex that no research is available to examine and from which to begin to design a study. Instead of searching for the path of least resistance choose a topic that you find interesting in some way, or that is controversial and that you have a strong opinion about, or has some personal meaning for you. You're going to be working on your topic for quite some time, so choose one that you find interesting and engaging or that motivates you to take a position.
Once you’ve settled on a topic of interest from the list, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed above to further develop it into a research paper.
NOTE: It’s ok to review related literature to help refine how you will approach analyzing a topic, and then discover that the topic isn’t all that interesting to you. In that case, you can choose another from the list. Just don’t wait too long to make a switch and be sure to consult with your professor first that you are changing your topic.
III. How To Begin: Your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic
Step 1: Under this scenario, the key process is turning an idea or general thought into a topic that can be configured into a research problem. When given an assignment where you choose the research topic, don't begin by thinking about what to write about, but rather, ask yourself the question, "What do I want to know?" Treat an open-ended assignment as an opportunity to learn about something that's new or exciting to you.
Step 2: If you lack ideas, or wish to gain focus, try some or all of the following strategies:
- Review your course readings, particularly the suggested readings, for topic ideas. Don't just review what you've already read but jump ahead in the syllabus to readings that have not been covered yet.
- Search the USC Libraries Catalog for a good, recently published book and, if appropriate, more specialized works related to the discipline area of the course [e.g., for the course SOCI 335, search for books on population and society].
- Browse through some current journals in your subject discipline. Even if most of the articles are not relevant, you can skim through the contents quickly. You only need one to be the spark that begins the process of wanting to learn more about a topic. Consult with a librarian and/or your professor about the core journals within your subject discipline.
- Think about essays you have written for past classes and other coursework you have taken or academic lectures and programs you have attended. Thinking back, what most interested you? What would you like to know more about?
- Search online media sources, such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, or Newsweek, to see if your idea has been covered by the media. Use this coverage to refine your idea into something that you'd like to investigate further but in a more deliberate, scholarly way based on a particular problem that needs to be researched.
Step 3: To build upon your initial idea, use the suggestions under this tab to help narrow, broaden, or increase the timeliness of your idea so you can write it out as a research problem.
Once you are comfortable with having turned your idea into a research problem, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed in Part I above to further develop it into a research paper.
Alderman, Jim. "Choosing a Research Topic." Beginning Library and Information Systems Strategies. Paper 17. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Digital Commons, 2014; Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 2: Choosing a Research Topic. Adrian R. Eley. Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. New York: Routledge, 2012; Answering the Question. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Brainstorming. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Brainstorming. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011; Choosing a Topic. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; How To Write a Thesis Statement. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Identify Your Question. Start Your Research. University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.
Many human activities result in air pollution, including emissions from vehicles and power plants, negatively impacting human health and economic efficiency. RFF experts have been analyzing policies to monitor and improve air quality since such regulations first came to pass.Show Subtopics & Collections
The accumulation of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere is slowly raising the global temperature and disrupting climate patterns, with implications for economic stability worldwide. Research and analysis at RFF supports informed policy design and negotiations to address climate change on national and international levels.Show Subtopics & Collections
Development and Environment
Developing countries face tradeoffs as they seek to create robust settings for the advancement of markets and industry while safeguarding environmental and human health. RFF experts collaborate with partners around the world to design and evaluate innovative policy approaches to achieve both economic and environmental goals.Show Subtopics & Collections
Healthy ecosystems are essential for the survival and success of countless species on Earth. RFF researchers are studying the dynamics of these natural systems to assess the benefits of protecting existing ecosystems or restoring those that have been disrupted by human activities or invasive species.Show Subtopics & Collections
Energy and Electricity
The beginning of the twenty-first century has seen rapid changes in the domestic and international energy landscape. In order to accommodate current and future challenges, experts at RFF are analyzing policy options that balance growing electricity demands with the need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.Show Subtopics & Collections
Environmental Economics Topics
Today’s environmental experts have a wide range of tools at their disposal for the design and evaluation of local, state, regional, and national policies. Many of these tools were developed at RFF, and the organization’s contribution to the field of environmental economics remains one of its greatest legacies.Show Subtopics & Collections
Forests are home to many invaluable ecosystem goods and services as well as a source of wood products for economies around the world. Experts at RFF are evaluating the effectiveness of forest management policies by accounting for the economic, social, and environmental goals of region-specific programs alongside program costs.Show Subtopics & Collections
The United Nations is currently guiding the framework for a potential international climate agreement. Each country faces a unique set of environmental challenges, often complicated by existing political, social, and economic factors. RFF experts are analyzing climate, energy, and environmental policies around the world to help governments analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their respective policies.Show Subtopics & Collections
Research at RFF on the way land is used and managed spans natural, rural, and urban settings, including analysis of innovative policies to limit urban sprawl, the cost and effectiveness of natural infrastructure, and the costs and benefits of recreational land use, among other topics.Show Subtopics & Collections
Risk and Uncertainty
Discussions about climate change, natural disasters, and financial markets often center on risk management, highlighting the extreme losses that can occur. Research at RFF focuses on ways to quantify and reduce uncertainty, as well as detect, mitigate, and transfer the risk associated with disasters and climate change.Show Subtopics & Collections
Outer space is a unique natural resource that is often ignored. As more opportunities to utilize this resource emerge, work at RFF helps policymakers who will need to design comprehensive guidelines that clarify near-Earth ownership, responsibilities, and pollution protocols to help regulate the use and development of space.Show Subtopics & Collections
A growing economy relies on an effective and efficient transportation system; however, issues related to pollution, congestion, and safety can dampen that growth. RFF experts are analyzing the costs, benefits, and distributional consequences of transportation policies to help lawmakers design programs that can effectively impact consumer and producer behaviors.Show Subtopics & Collections
Hazardous and non-hazardous waste can negatively impact both human and environmental health. Research at RFF examines the costs and benefits of managing waste—from Superfund sites to nuclear waste and brownfields—using a range of containment, cleanup, and recycling policies.Show Subtopics & Collections
Water is the most abundant natural resource on the planet, the source of countless ecosystem services, and critical to industrial, agricultural, household, and recreational activities. Research by RFF experts helps inform effective water management policies that account for the value of water, address water quality and sustainability, and consider the challenges associated with water rights.Show Subtopics & Collections