Picking a Research Topic, Part 1

Where do I begin?

No matter what field you’re in, the research topic possibilities are endless. Think about it: even with millennia behind us of incessant human inquiry, there are still so many unanswered questions, not to mention all the research that can be reevaluated, critiqued, and enhanced. That can be both encouraging and intimidating, especially for a young researcher with limited exposure to their field. Rest assured, I am here to help you navigate the vast sea of research questions like a seasoned sailor.

When I had to settle on a topic for my senior capstone paper, I spent weeks delaying my decision because there were just too many topics to choose from and they all seemed equally deserving of my amateur investigation. As the paper proposal deadline drew near, I received a piece of advice that completely changed the way I saw my upcoming research project. I’ll pass on this same piece of advice to you, adding to it what I learned in the following months.

Four ways to approach research topic selection

Satisfying intellectual curiosity
  • In your years of academic experience and learning, you’ll have come across a myriad of subjects and topics. Ideally, some golden nugget of information may have struck you as odd, interesting, or incomplete. If this inspires within you a desire to further investigate, pursue that feeling! This is exactly the motivation that can guide research, whether as a novice or a lifelong investigator.
Building on a topic you’ve previously studied
  • On the other hand, you may have studied a breadth of information over the years, all of which you find interesting and worthy of further pursuit. If that’s the case, there are two ways you could proceed:
    • You could consider the feasibility and potential outcome of any given topic, and choose the project you’re confident you can complete and whose potential outcome or contribution excites you the most.
    • Alternatively, you can opt to add to existing research that you’ve encountered in your schooling by challenging or supporting its thesis with your own data.
Contributing to an existing research project, center, or lab
  • Depending on your field and institution, there may already be an existing project for you to contribute to, making your research topic search a whole lot easier. Though you may have to adapt your personal interests and goals slightly to fit the outline of the project, the benefits to this kind of collaboration are many, including a considerable amount of existing funding (meaning you won’t have to apply for any yourself) and institutional support, readily available datasets, and a host of mentors and supervisors.
Create a pathway to your desired professional/academic field
  • Now this is the piece of advice that really shaped the way I viewed my capstone. Knowing that I wanted to learned more about the UAE’s contemporary art scene and venues, I was advised to take my capstone as a chance to talk to artists, gain access to cultural events, receive funding to go to Dubai and Sharjah to see exhibitions, and meet the leadership in charge of my favorite art galleries and institutions. This allowed me to explore the local art scene first-hand while building a professional network in the field. You’d be surprised at all the cool interviews and insider access people are willing to grant you under the guise of academic research. Genius, right!
Credits to the author.

Regardless of your field and career path, your undergraduate research project can serve as a stepping stone into the future you envision, whether that be in academia or not. Learning to set your own deadlines, hold yourself accountable, reach out to interlocutors and collaborators, formulate thorough analyses of your data, apply theory, and write arguments with supporting evidence are all valuable transferrable skills that you will gain in your research experience. As an added bonus, you get to dive really deeply into a topic, making you a micro-expert in this subject.

P.S.: Check out Picking a Research Topic, Part 2 for more tips!

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