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"My discovery that black holes emit radiation raised serious problems of consistency with the rest of physics.  I have now resolved these problems, but the answer turned out to be not what I expected."

- Stephen Hawking

Identify and Develop

Being a researcher means that sometimes you have to be nimble. In the next two steps, you may find yourself going back and forth: doing background research while you are developing your topic.

In a freshman course, the topics are often chosen for you; in many cases, there’s wiggle room for you to operate within a predetermined topic, like the content of your course. It’s best to find out from your professor to what extent you can work within a topic. When instructors give you topics to research, they will either give you a prompt, ask a question, or give you a list of topics from which you can make a choice. In all cases, you will need to go on a journey of discovery and search for information that will help you answer the question.

In some cases, your instructor may give you “free reign” within the framework of a course to do your own research. This can be an overwhelming feeling; after all, our world is complex and there’s so much out there for us to learn. Again, talk with your instructor or seek out a reference librarian. You may have to create your own topic and question for research.

What’s critical in each scenario is that you possess curiosity to learn more about the ideas in the course, how the ideas you are learning apply to your major, and finally, what the larger scholarly community has to say about your topic and question.

What Interests You?

Before you have this conversation with your professor, it's best to go to them with an idea first. Here are some strategies you can use to begin thinking about your topic.

  1. Use your textbook to look for broad ideas or themes.
  2. Converse with classmates in the course.
  3. Read the newspaper and professional magazines for ideas that are interesting, current, intellectual, inclusive, and interdisciplinary.
  4. Look for controversial issues in news media; this doesn’t mean you need to become polemic yourself. You will be looking for evidence to help you bring levity to an issue or topic.
  5. Go to the PPCC Learning Commons or Library, and talk with a reference librarian, who can also facilitate a conversation about what, within the field of study, interests you to explore and learn more about a topic. You can also ask questions to PPCC librarians online here!
  6. Always remember that you can consult with your instructor.
  7. This drives a key point: a willingness to have conversations about the course material and topics will help you ultimately decide upon a topic.

Examples of Good Topics:

- The economic causes of the Civil War

- The benefits and hindrances of mining He3 on the Moon

Once you have a topic, run it by your professor or the reference librarian; they will help you refine it!

Video Tutorial

What makes a good research topic? 

The perfect topic doesn’t just fall out of the sky. Getting started is one of the hardest parts. In this video you will learn: What makes a good research topic, how to conduct background research and how to develop a specific and relevant research topic.

A video about starting research and developing your topic into something that will be interesting and manageable.

Pro Tip:

Using a subject encyclopedia and/or reference can help you to identify topics. You will find them in the reference section; universities often have large reference sections. Libraries in recent years have shifted their resources to obtaining more online references. These are also great sources. At PPCC, we have CREDO (in Latin, this literally translates to "I believe"). CREDO is a database that hosts online references; these references possess common knowledge or the consensus of a given field. Therefore, the information tends to be more factual.

References and subject encyclopedias can teach you the common knowledge of a topic or field of study, giving you a stronger foundation and allowing you to flush out your topic, thus empowering you to ask a stronger question.

"The heart and soul of good writing is research; you should write not what you know but what you can find out about."

- Robert J. Sawyer