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How to: Choose a topic and craft a research question


Start by browsing for ideas and inspiration

If your professor has not assigned a topic to you, it can be difficult to come up with something on your own. The goal is to find something you're interested in personally, and to ensure it is focused with a clear structure.

Try browsing through these databases to see if an a topic sparks your interest, and then use the tips below to ensure you are staying on track:

To determine whether a topic will work for you and for your assignment, consider these questions: 

  • Am I interested in this topic?
  • Is the topic appropriate to my audience?
  • What is my purpose for writing about this topic?
  • Can I fully develop and research this topic within the time frame and word length
  • required by the assignment requirements?
  • Is the topic narrow enough (or broad enough) to fit the assignment requirements (see below)?
  • Will I be able to research this topic adequately enough to satisfy the source requirements?
    • Try an initial keyword search using Summon from the library's homepage.

A topic is too broad when you find that you have too many different ideas or resources about that topic, or, when you are becoming overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. While you want to start the writing process with as many ideas as possible, you will want to narrow your focus at some point so that you aren't attempting to do too much in one essay.

Here are ways to make your result list less in quantity, but still high in relevance:

  • Theoretical approach:  Limit your topic to a particular approach to the issue.  
    • Example: if your topic concerns vaccines, examine the theories surrounding of the rate of failures in vaccines.
  • Aspect or sub-area:  Consider only one piece of the subject.  
    • Example: if your topic is vaccines, investigate government regulations of vaccines.
  • Time:  Limit the time span you examine.  
    • Example: on a topic on vaccines, contrast public attitudes in the 1950's vs. the 2000's.
  • Population group:  Limit by age, sex, race, occupation, species or ethnic group.  
    • Example: on a topic on vaccines, examine specific traits as they affect women over 40 years of age.
  • Geographical Location:  A geographic analysis can provide a useful means to examine an issue.  
    • Example: if your topic concerns vaccines, investigate vaccine practices in Africa or the Middle East.

A topic is too narrow if you can't find any information about it.  Though student writers most often face the challenge of limiting a topic that is too broad, they occasionally have to recognize that they have chosen a topic that is too narrow or that they have narrowed a workable topic too much.  If your topic is so narrowed and focused, it can become too academic or pedantic.  If your topic is too narrow, try making it broader by asking yourself related questions.

  • Your topic is too specific. Generalize what you are looking for.  
    • Example: if your topic is genetic diversity for a specific ethnic group in Ghana, Africa, broaden your topic by generalizing to all ethnic groups in Ghana or in West Africa.
  • Your topic is too new for anything substantive to have been written. If you're researching a recently breaking news event, you are likely to only find information about it in the news media. Be sure to search databases that contain articles from newspapers. If you are not finding enough in the news media, consider changing your topic to one that has been covered more extensively.
  • Use different databases.  Use the Library catalog to find other databases in your subject area which might cover the topic from a different perspective. Also, use excellent searching techniques to ensure you are getting the most out of every database.  Remember if you need help finding databases or techniques, contact a librarian.
  • Change the Words.  Are you using less common words or too much jargon to describe your topic?  Use a thesaurus to find other terms to represent your topic. When reading background information, note how your topic is expressed in these materials. When you find citations in an article database, see how the topic is expressed by experts in the field.
Going from broad to narrow (examples):
Broad topic: Focused Topic: Research Question:
Eating disorders Anorexia What is the relationship between Instagram and anorexia?
Online courses Effectiveness of online college courses Which type of course delivery is more effective for college students: online or traditional?

Self - Check (Anonymous Poll & Discussion)

If you're struggling with narrowing your topic, you can...
Look at demographic characteristics: 2 votes (8%)
Consider issues relevant to you: 5 votes (20%)
Think about a specific location: 1 votes (4%)
Select a timeframe or historical period: 0 votes (0%)
Choose a certain cause: 0 votes (0%)
Any of the above: 11 votes (44%)
None of the above: 6 votes (24%)
Total Votes: 25

The correct answer is Any of the Above!


Once you have chosen a research topic, you will need to narrow it down into a research statement or question. The sooner you do this in your research process, the more time you'll save because you can conduct more focused searches.

Here are some common ways you can narrow down a research topic:

By demographic characteristics 

  • Narrow it down by age group, occupation, ethnic group, gender, etc.  
  • e.g. challenges faced by international college graduates entering the workforce

By relevant issues

  • Try to identify key issues related to your topic, especially ones that you have an opinion on. You can turn your opinion into your thesis statement or research question.
  • e.g. challenges faced by college graduates who are unable to find meaningful or relevant work 

By location 

  • Focus on a specific country, province, city, or type of environment (rural vs. urban). 
  • e.g. challenges faced by college graduates entering the workforce in rural Ontario

By timeframe 

  • Decide whether you want to study recent events or a historical time period. This will also help you decide how current the information you use must be.
  • e.g. challenges faced by college graduates entering the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic

By causes

  • You can take the perspective of looking for causes of an issue you are researching.
  • e.g. Why do employers hire fewer college graduates?

Then what?

When developing a research question, think about: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The more of these you incorporate the more specific your research question will be.


Seneca College (2022, May 13). FAQ: How do I narrow down my research topic? Seneca Library. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from