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Choosing A Research Topic Once you have decided to gain experience by being involved in research, you have to face the really big question: What am I going to study? If you have decided to join a research lab or jump on board with research that a particular professor is conducting, this question will be answered for you. However, if you are going to conduct research through an independent study of your own under the advisement of a faculty member, or if you have joined a lab designed to facilitate students’ independent research endeavors, this question will probably consume much of your time. However, if this is your first research project, consider this approach: look at research that others around you are doing. If any of it interests you, approach that researcher about working together, and maybe even adding an additional variable that you can make your own. There are some great advantages to identifying a topic this way. If you are interested in an area, work with another researcher on their project. This means you know more about it from the beginning, and whomever you are working with can point you toward key journals, authors, and measures. Also, someone with increased exposure to the area you want to study will be able to help you identify possible problems with your design. After all, they have already had to come up with an idea, decide how to approach it, and iron out all the kinks. If, however, you want to conduct your first project independently, you are likely to have quite a task ahead of you. And if you plan to jump onto someone else’s research team, it is always nice to bring fresh ideas to the table when you come. Generally, the identification of a research topic for a new researcher can be broken down into a five-step process: identify an area of interest, browse through the literature, pick a topic, conduct a literature search, and identify a research question. Step 1 – Identify an Area of Interest: What subfield of psychology interests you? For many students, the declaration of an undergraduate major in psychology is based on the desire for a particular job. If you know specifically what job you want when you’re done with college, you are probably at an advantage in this step. For many of us, however, psychology is such a large field that it takes many hours of outside reading and upper-level course work before we are sure what areas we are or are not interested in studying. Here is a list of the major subfields in psychology. More information is available on the web, and can be found by any number of methods: visit http://www.apa.org or http://www.psychologicalscience.org, type them into a search engine, or visit faculty web sites at other universities. Biopsychology Family Psychology Clinical Psychology Forensic Psychology Cognitive Psychology Health Psychology Community Psychology Industrial/Organizational Psychology Counseling Psychology Personality Psychology Developmental Psychology Psychometric Psychology Educational Psychology Rehabilitation Psychology Engineering Psychology School Psychology Environmental Psychology Social Psychology Experimental Psychology Figuring out which subfield of psychology interests you the most does not have to limit your research experience. Involving yourself in research from several different areas during your undergraduate years will only help to expand your knowledge, improve critical thinking skills, grow your professional network, and help you gain valuable skills. So, now you are probably wondering why I even went to the trouble of including the list of psychology subfields, aren’t you? Well, if you are new to research, and do not yet have a topic in mind, are not yet enjoying your role in a research lab, and do not have a specific professor that you believe you are destined to work with, this information is for you. Pick one or two subareas that are the most interesting, and approach a professor who is doing (or has done) work in that field. Even if you don’t think their specific topic is the most interesting in the world, this will force you to become familiar with the literature and methods relevant to that field. All research exposure, whether or not your ideal project, is a valuable resource. Don’t turn your nose up to a research opportunity because it isn’t your dream project. Because of the endless number of research topics out there, it is not very likely that a professor at your institute will be researching the exact topic that gets you excited. Here’s my advice on this issue: if you are fortunate enough to get the opportunity to do research, do it. Even if it is not research you want to be doing. If you commit yourself to the project and its success, you will walk away from it with some combination of the following: 1) a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of a body of literature; 2) no doubt in your mind that you are not interested in that particular line of research; 3) a new appreciation for a topic you thought would bore you to death; 4) the experience of and ability to implement research protocol; 5) new insights you can apply to your ideal topic when you get the chance to study it; 6) a professor who is willing to write a letter of recommendation when you apply to graduate schools; 7) the ability to recognize that professors are people too; 8) a sneak peek at a career you currently think you want; and 9) a strong sense of community with those you are working with – your former “students I see in class” have become your collaborators, and that professor everyone is afraid of has become a sort of colleague… and, if you are lucky, your mentor. Also keep in mind that each area under the psychology umbrella has the potential to offer exciting insights into your own research such as an applicable theory, different statistical methods, or a unique perspective from which to think critically about your own research. This is an especially important aspect when you are writing the paper that should accompany major research projects you undertake. More on the paper later…. Lots more! Step 2 – Browse the Literature: What has been done? Often, the simple act of reviewing literature that is already out there will spark a flame for a new research idea. Simply by browsing through abstracts from a few issues of key journals in the area you are interested in, you will learn not only about what has been studied, but what has been studied a lot and what has been somewhat ignored. Just browse through journal articles until you come across something that interests you. When you read an abstract and are so interested in the topic that you find yourself wanting to read the whole article, you are there. Step 3 – Pick a Topic: In one word or less, what do you want to study? As you browse through past issues of key journals, write down everything you find interesting. No paragraphs or dissertations for this, just a list of topics or concepts – but be sure to include enough information that you will remember what the items in your list mean. If you write down SIT, but don’t remember later that SIT stands for Social Identity Theory, you will end up having to go back through journals to find that interesting tidbit again. Now that you have this list, read over it several times, put it down, and walk away. The topic(s) you can’t stop thinking about is probably the one you want to pursue. Step 4 – Conduct a Literature Search: Does the existing literature address the topic? If so, that doesn’t mean you can’t study it as well. In my experience, undergraduates tend to not straddle the fence on one issue: is it better to study something that has never been studied, or something that has been studied a lot? My independent research projects have taught me a very important lesson regarding this question: put one leg on either side of the fence and find a way to sit comfortably! On the one hand, it is a lot less work to read five articles, than to review and pick through fifty or five hundred articles. On the other hand, it is much easier to design a good study and choose appropriate methods to do so when you can refer to mistakes other people have made. It is also a lot easier to synthesize eight articles into a concise paper than it is to work this magic with forty articles. However, the ability to compare and contrast methods and results allows for wonderful freedom and flexibility in both design and discussion of your findings. In short, don’t worry about how much literature is out there. Once you choose a topic, find all the relevant literature you can. Don’t be intimidated by hundreds of articles, and don’t change topics because you can only find two. If you are really stressing about this issue, talk to an experienced researcher – a professor or a grad student. They might be able to offer alternative search terms to help you find more literature, or advice on how to go about weeding out ones you don’t need. When reviewing the literature you can find, pay close attention to discussion sections. Authors often include a critique of their own work in which they identify limitations of the design and its implications for further study. Piecing together this information from several related studies provides a map – you get to see where the research has been, and what others think its next logical destination might be. Once you’ve read several articles, you might even identify an idea of your own based on questions you ask yourself while reading the articles. Step 5 – Identify a Research Question: What are your variables going to be? Once you have read through your lit search findings, you will have a pretty clear picture of what you want to study, and possibly even how you are going to measure or study it. Your research question is exactly what it sounds like – a statement about the relationship between two variables. For instance, suppose I decided that I am interested in social psychology, browsed the literature, made my list, conducted a lit search, and now know that I want to study prejudice and privilege awareness. A research question might look something like this: How are prejudice and privilege awareness related? The downfall to this question is that it is too broad and lacks a lot of information. Your goal for the research question is not to predict cause and effect, or even the direction of a relationship. Save that stuff for the hypothesis. Instead, the research question should be a semi-broad question that includes all the variables (or factors) you want your research design to consider. A better research question is something like this: How does increased privilege awareness in undergraduate men and women relate to levels of prejudice toward classmates who are members of minority ethnic groups? This is just a general model to help you get through the process of deciding what to study. In practice, you will probably find that you combine a couple of steps, or do things in a different order. For instance, I often find that research I have done leads me to identify a new research question, and then I have to go back to see what literature is available that relates to that question. This process does not consist of five clear-cut steps for every project, or even for every researcher. However, if you are starting at the beginning, this model will guide you flawlessly through the process. Before leaving this topic, there are tow other points that I want to make about choosing a research topic. First, It is important to have a solid interest in a topic so that you don’t lose interest in the project halfway through. Being passionate about a topic is okay, but don’t pick one that is extremely emotional for you. While a huge personal investment in the topic might give be a driving force when you first start out, there is a danger that the continued emotional arousal will produce overwhelming stress over time. Remember that research is an involved process, and can take a long time to complete. Initiating and conducting research is a huge responsibility, which can also be stressful. Wait until you are a little more comfortable with research the way it is before making it more stressful than it has to be. If you enjoy your first project, you are more likely to do a second. The final thing you should consider when selecting a research topic is this: Do not try to solve all the problems of the world in your first study! There are a lot of problems in this world and it will take at least a dozen studies to solve them all. Of course, this is a joke. You cannot solve all the problems of the world through what research you can accomplish during your lifetime. Accept (and appreciate) the fact that small questions have scientific impact. This is a hard fact for many students to accept. Hanging out with other student researchers, there is this running joke that someday my name will be included in the list of researchers that all dedicated psychology students are familiar with: Freud, Zimbardo, Milgram, Bandura, Chumney…. Yes, this delusion is nice and it always gets a few giggles, but it is not realistic. The goal of your research should be to enhance psychology as a science, not revolutionize it.
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