How to Choose a Topic for Your Research Paper
As class starts your Professor announces
that there will be a term paper due in two
months. He continues, explaining that the
paper is going to be a large investment
requiring a lot of time and dedication.
You lean forward in anticipation, listening
for what the topic will be. After clearing
his throat your professor states that the
topic is open to your decision.
The first thoughts in your head are, ‘this is
great! I can pick whatever I want…wait
what do I want?”
This is probably the hardest part of the paper, choosing the topic. It also is the most important. A term
paper is going to take weeks of preparation and if you are not fond of your topic this could be hours of
No need to fear though, choosing your topic does not have to be that hard. Here are some easy steps
for you to follow.
1. Does Open Really Mean Open?
Your professor has declared the topic to be chosen at your discretion, but he may also have some
preconceptions as to what makes a good topic. Stop by his office after class and discuss the paper
with him. Ask for examples of topics he would like to see. His advice will be very insightful and he
may even give you a few ideas to start with.
2. Begin the Brainstorm
Grab a pad of paper and a pen and get
ready to write anything and everything
that comes into your head. No bad
ideas at this point, write any possible
topic you can think of. Begin in the
morning when you wake up with
twenty minutes of just straight
brainstorming. You can do this during
As you prepare to leave the house take the pad with you and keep the topic in your head. It
can be amazing how ideas seem to come from out of nowhere as you go through your day.
Write these down the moment they come to you so they are not lost with the rest of your
Ask your friends and family for ideas. Write down what they say, even if the ideas are silly.
The more people you ask the more possible perspectives you will have.
Do this for the whole day or even a few days if you have the time and on the last day it is
time to review the list for the final storm. Read through the possible topics using them as
inspiration and write down any others that pop into your head.
3. Start the Sifting
Now that you have a pad full of different ideas
for your topic you need to start sifting the wheat
from the tares. Eliminate the topics that will not
work for your paper. Here are some things to
keep in mind.
Do the Categories fit the Paper
requirements? Think back to the discussion you
had with your professor and the type of topics
that he is looking for in a paper. Remove any of
the topics that won’t work.
Does it interest you? This is going to be a long paper so make sure that you enjoy it. If the
topic seems boring take it off the list.
Can the topic support a paper? Hopefully we are down to around 10 ideas. Now it is time
to do a little bit of background research to make sure that there is enough written about the
topic already to do pull from. If it looks like it is going to be difficult task finding information
on the topic, scratch it.
Do we have a perspective? You will need more than a topic; you need a point to prove.
Look through your ideas and write down your viewpoint on each of them. Are you trying to
prove, to disprove? If there really is no purpose to writing on a topic other than reporting,
What is the Best? We have a few topics left and now it really is up to you and your personal
preferences. Pick the best three topics you have and write a mock thesis statement for each
of them. You now have three potential papers.
Consult with the grade giver. Go back to your professor. Bring your three topics and thesis
statements and ask the professor his thoughts. If you have done a good job he will probably
say yes to all three, but it is good to ask anyway.
Your final choice? You have done the work, prepared well, so now make your choice from
4. Stay Flexible
Now that you have a topic you can begin your research, but one thing I have learned is the more you
know about a topic the more your perspective can change. Maybe in a couple weeks you may want
to tweak your thesis, this is ok. If you would like chat with your professor about possible changes do
so. Lastly, remember to smile. Whether you are in a Salt Lake College, a New York university, or an
online school you are on your way to a great paper.
Photo Credit: markgranitz, Juhan Sonin, World Bank Photo Collection