Skip to Main Content

COMM 220: Comm and Social Relationships

Getting Started With Research

If given the option to choose your own research paper topic but you find yourself struggling to choose what to write about, this guide contains some basic guidelines to keep in mind as you choose what to write about, and contains a large list of possible topics to help spark some ideas.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Choose a topic that is relevant and current: There needs to be a reason why you need to research this topic at this particular point in time. If choosing a topic within a discipline, look at recent issues of the journals in that discipline to think about what topics scholars in the field are concerned about. In a beginning composition course, where you are writing about a social issue, look at headlines in The New York Times or other internet media sources: What events have transpired that makes a particular issue important right now? What issues are there important conversations about?
  • Choose a topic that interests you: The best research projects come out of curiosity on the part of the researcher. You might think about topics that effect your community, however you define it, such as topics important to college students. You might think about a topic that affects your future profession. Or, you could come across something in your daily reading or daily life that you are curious about, and go from there.
  • Choose a topic that leads to complex questions: You generally want to avoid topics that provoke questions that have simple yes/no answers.

Keep in mind that there are some topics that are too broad, general, or have nothing new to say. You may want to avoid the usual social issue topics, including: abortion, the death penalty, gun control, euthanasia, violence in video games, steroid abuse, the SATs, the “obesity epidemic,” and marriage equality. These topics often lead to more simplistic research questions or pro/con arguments. Original takes can be interesting, or there may be specific new developments about a topic worth discussing, and some of these topics are included in this guide's list of topics, but be mindful of how you approach them.

While you want to choose something you are interested in, don’t choose something you have already made up your mind about. Doing so will lead to more simplistic arguments where you may overlook ways to make a more nuanced argument or overlook important evidence that doesn’t support the argument you want to make. After all, if you already know the answer to your research question, then why are you researching it?

The best topics will come out of your own curiosity and reading. If you find a source that says exactly what you want to say, however, then you want to change your approach to your topic (because why would you want to say everything someone else has already said). You might think of your task as synthesizing other views into your own view.

This material is adapted from Wendy Hayden and Stephanie Margolin's Research Toolkit at the Hunter College Libraries under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Keywords are terms that represent the main concepts of your research topic. 

These terms are what you will use to search for sources (articles, books, etc.) to support or answer your research question. Keywords can be single terms or a phrase (if using a search engine or database, "put phrases in quotes" to search multiple words as a single term).

The right keywords are "key" to finding good sources.

When you are developing these keywords consider:

  • The most important words/phrases in your research question
  • How to describe your topic
  • How might someone else search for your topic
  • Do you need to use subject specific terminology
  • Synonyms

Start by identifying the main concepts in your research question:

For example, if my research question is: How are cell phones affecting the relationships of young adults?

The main concepts areas here are:

  • "Cell phones" / Cellphones
  • Relationships
  • "Young adults"

Then brainstorm related terms and synonyms for your concepts:

  • "Cell phones":
    • "Mobile phones"
    • "Texting habits"
    • Smartphones
  • Relationships:
    • "Romantic partners"
    • Couples
    • Partners
    • Boyfriend / Girlfriend
    • "Social skills"
    • "Long distance relationships"
    • Friendships
  • "Young Adults":
    • Adolescents
    • Teenagers
    • "College students"
    • "Twenty-somethings"
    • "Ages 18-25"

This material is adapted from Charleston Southern University's Rivers Library "Where to Start Your Research" Guide under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Mind Maps are a great tool for effectively accessing natural creativity, harnessing that creativity for effective problem solving, and for helping to plan and organize essays.  Mind Maps work in the same way as your brain, meaning that when you have a thought – this could be an image, a word or a feeling – this instantly sparks off hundreds of connecting ideas.  The main branches of the Mind Map can be used in a variety of ways to support thinking about core concepts.  By creating a Mind Map to plan your essay, you generate more ideas quickly and, with the radial structure, you can quickly see the connecting topics, main paragraphs and structure.  Mind Maps are just a way of representing this process on paper, so start Mind Mapping and you’ll find countless ideas flooding out.  When you start Mind Mapping, students should note down any ideas that they have – no matter how crazy or random!  This is where the best creative plans come from – so don’t be afraid to be off the wall…

Some possible ways the main branches can be used are as follows:

  • Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats:  This is a well known technique for getting ‘out of the box’ of habitual thinking.  It originated as a way of helping groups to get away from the conflict that characterizes many meetings by adopting different thinking modes, which de Bono categorized as: logic, emotion, caution, optimism, creativity, and control.
  • Edward de Bono’s PNI approach:  This is a simple way of approaching problems by analyzing points on the basis of whether something is ‘Positive’, ‘Negative’ or ‘Interesting’.
  • Questions: Making the main branches questions can often act as an impetus for effective problem solving. The usual questions are Who, What, Where, Why, When and How.
  • Checklists: One way of using checklists would be to take an item and use the checklist to stimulate thinking about alternative uses. Typical branches may be: Magnify, Minify, Substitute, Rearrange, Reverse and Combine.
  • Forced Relationships and Analogies: One of the main challenges for anyone wishing to be creative is in provoking their thinking away from existing paradigms.  There are a number of ways of doing this, such as thinking of similarities to or differences from some of the more or less random words.  The choice of words is arbitrary since the key here is to provoking thinking.  Typical words (branches) may be: Animals, Transport, People, Textures, Shapes, etc.
  • Attribute Lists:  Again, primarily used to provoke thinking by looking at existing problems, objects or situations in new ways.  The way this technique works is simply to list different attributes and then use the natural process of the Mind Map to think divergently.