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Step 1: Research Topics and Research Question

The process of composing a research paper is a long and involved undertaking, and it all starts with finding the right topic and research question. As a written work that could potentially be studied by future researchers, the paper you write will need a topic that is both sound and relevant in order to meet the full objective at hand. If you succeed at making a compelling case through your research, the paper could end up moving minds both within and around the field in question, and ultimately serve as your stepping stone to a position of higher esteem in that field.

Unlike more conventional assignments, where the objective is to simply summarize content, make observations, answer questions or offer opinions, research papers function as scholarly works intended for prestigious academic journals. Whereas topical essays and book reports are primarily intended for the sole audience of one—the professor who assigns them—research papers are intended for a larger audience that includes professors, future students and researchers, as well as those whose lives revolve around the topics in question. Therefore, a topic must not only be explained in a research paper, it must also be analyzed, cross examined and challenged at different angles from multiple sources.

Finding a Research Topic

Assigned Topics

In many instances, your professor will give you a list of topics to choose from for your research paper. Since all of these topics are bound to offer plenty of sources for research, your best option in this case is to choose the topic most familiar to you.

Tip: Most professors love talking about research ideas and proposals. Don't hesitate to go to your instructor for advice.


In other instances, your professor might give you a loosely defined range of topic types, but leave it to you to find an appropriate topic. If this is the case, you should check with your professor to make sure that the objective is fully understood in advance of getting started on your work.

Topics of Personal Interest

If your professor leaves it up to you to choose your own research topic, the first options you should consider are topics of personal interest. By compiling a research paper on a topic that you find interesting, you will not only have an easier time getting started on your assignment, but you will also have the chance to gain further knowledge in an area that could form the basis of your post-college career.

For instance, if your intended field of study is music theory, doing a research paper on the twelve-tone technique could be useful because it would cover an intricate yet controversial area of 20th century classical music.

Topic Availability

Another thing to consider here is the amount of resources available on a given topic. For instance, you might have more interest in the topic of involuntary celibacy than you do about North Korean labor camps, but you are likely to find more research sources devoted to the latter topic. Depending on the word-count or page requirements of your assignment, an abundance of resources could have a huge impact on your ability to undertake the workload.

Controversial topics

For the argumentative research paper, the best option is to choose a controversial topic, such as anything related to public policies or socio-political matters. In an age of extreme partisanship, hot button issues for either of the two major political parties are always a source of controversy. Since the objective here is to mount evidence and sway readers to a particular side of a controversial issue, you should pick a topic on today’s front burner that you feel passionate about; examples could include the following:

Research Paper Topic List

  • The Affordable Care Act
  • Gun control
  • Global warming
  • Money in politics
  • Education crisis
  • Net neutrality
  • Creationism in schools
  • Reparative therapy
  • Drug decriminalization
  • Defense spending
  • Marriage equality
  • Legality of military action

Making a List of Topics

With a full understanding of your assignment, you should make a list of 6-12 potential topics for your research paper. At this size, your list will be large enough to give you options, but short enough for you to notice any similar ideas. If more than half of the topics are related to a specific area of study, it probably means that you gravitate towards that area, in which case you should discard the other possibilities. From there you can see which of those related topics are easiest to source for research.

Initial Research

At this point, it will be time to explore your favorite options in further detail. Some topics might prove less interesting upon further investigation, which is always best to know before getting serious about the assignment. If you need to familiarize yourself with a topic further before getting underway with your work, it would be wise to do a quick read-up on the topic on Wikipedia. Though it cannot be used as a source in your research paper, a Wiki page could still give you a clearer idea of a topic and help you decide whether you would want to make it the basis for your assignment. You could even browse the links section at the bottom of any given Wiki page for dozens of links—many of them credible—that you could then visit for further information and sources.

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How to Create a Research Question

When you set about composing a research paper, it is crucial to have questions to use that would spark your interest and provide a clear cut direction for your assignment. For instance, if you research a very general topic like “20th century technology,” it could be difficult to focus your assignment since the topic would yield thousands of sources on everything pertaining to technology from the last century. But if you narrow your focus to something more direct—such as “What were the most universally adapted technological advances of the 20th century?”—you will likely have an easier time gathering info and covering the topic in full detail.

So how might you go about conceiving a research question? First, you will need to decide on a subject for your research—a subject that is actually researchable. Then you will need to brainstorm for questions about the topic that would further pique your own curiosity. From that list of questions, pick your favorite one that is both focused and flexible. A quick count of the sources available for your research can help you gauge whether your question is too general, too limited or just right.

Tip: It is a good idea to check to see which topics have a lot of published material already available. Write on a topic that has at least some research already completed.


If you are coming to the topic with a fair amount of pre-existing knowledge, you could probably come up with some of your own research questions right off the bat. For instance, if you have been assigned to write about some aspect of domestic life during the American Colonial Period, you could start by drawing upon what you know already about domestic life. With that in mind, you could then read up on how that topic applied 250 years ago to see how things have changed and how they have remained the same, and from there construct a relevant research question.

The Difference Between Topics and Issues

For any research paper, the focus of your work will be driven by two primary elements: the topic and the issue. The topic identifies your subject matter, whether it concerns a general topic like downloading or a more specific aspect of that topic, such as the downloading of music. An issue is a concern surrounding your topic on which you adopt a position, such as the downloading of copyrighted but long out-of-print music from deceased artists.  

How to Test Your Research Question

In order to determine the viability and practicality of your research question, you should evaluate it with the following questions:

Evaluating a Research Question

1. Can the question be adequately researched and sufficiently explored?

2. Does the question fuel your interest or provoke thought in the topic at hand?

3. What types of sources (stats, books, people, directories) are needed to fully address the question and will you be able to access all of them?

4. Can the scope of research be undertaken in the timeframe allotted for the assignment?

5. Is the question right for the length of the assignment, or is it too broad or narrow?

That last question in particular can help you weed out plenty of weak prospects and improve upon some others. For instance, there are many ways that you could frame a question around the topic of recidivism in the U.S., as demonstrated by the following three examples:

Research Question Example: Limited in Scope

Limited: What is the recidivism rate among U.S. prisoners over the last 10 years?


Too Broad: What measures could be taken to reduce recidivism rates on a state-by-state basis?


Properly Focused Question: Does the practice of releasing prisoners cold turkey without transitioning them back into society play a role in high recidivism rates?

The first question would be too limiting for a research paper because it could easily be answered with a single statistic, while the second bites off more than you could likely chew in a single paper because it asks you to research multiple solutions in every state. But the third question presents a more focused challenge that could adequately be explored in the space of a college research paper.

The Possibility of Questions

Questions can form the basis for an analytical research paper, where instead of taking a firm stance on an issue, you would instead pose the question as something to be considered, and then proceed to explore the topic along with your readers. An analytical paper could explore a question about any given number of issues, including the following:

  • Do musicians, authors and filmmakers hold part of the blame when their lyrics, books and movies influence violent criminals?
  • Would workers be more productive during a 30-hour workweek?
  • Is news coverage tainted by the politics of the corporations that own our networks?
  • In what ways could copyright laws be adjusted to suit the realities of the digital age?
  • Has global warming played a role in the higher frequency of natural disasters around the world?

Writing a research paper could very well be the biggest undertaking of your college career. But if all the objectives are fulfilled, that paper could end up becoming one of your defining works in life. By arming yourself at the outset with a vital, researchable topic and a thought provoking, answerable question, you could possibly write a paper that will be studied for years to come in academia.

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