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Narrowing to a Great Research Paper Topic

Narrowing to a Great Research Paper Topic


research-topic-narrowingBy Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth
Program Director, Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University

Few students enjoy the prospect of writing a research paper and the stress starts early on in the process: defining a good topic.

Most often, the topic or problem initially chosen is too wide, too deep, and/or too unstructured. I call it problem inflation.

I have found that I can help students tackle this problem by starting with some general discussions within the class. I ask students to explain what problem defines Hurricane Katrina or what problem defines the cost overrun for the F-35 program? Then I ask them if they can study that problem and write a research paper on it?

Trying to respond to these questions generates some funny responses that help students to understand the issues associated with topics that are not focused. As they gain an understanding of the need to focus (deflate) the scope of a topic, students become engaged in an area that often frightens them.

I have been teaching for a long time and conducting and writing about research even longer. I have yet to read a problem statement from any source that survived its initial birth on paper.

Too many times, students try to take on a problem that is just too big. They want to identify the problem that George Washington had in combat or how logistics issues were tackled in WWI and WWII. The problem is just too inflated. A great research topic leads to some kind of discovery or insight into an issue or problem.

How often have you been frustrated when trying to define a topic? Sometimes professors are not great at communicating well on how to get to a better topic.

So, I want to let you in on the secret of finding a great topic: Use the name of the course as a search query with the following: “Issues with [name of course].” You can narrow the search to that week’s learning or course objective as well. Just type that objective in place of the course name. The results list will give you a number of great topic ideas.

The key to a great topic is to find an issue or problem with something. Writing about a subject is boring; covering an issue or problem is more interesting. Pick up today’s newspaper or look at a news home page online–How many problems or issues are on page one?

So, here’s a process that I suggest to fine tune that great topic:

  1. Start with an issue or problem you found in your search. Then list the top ten of the subtopics or problems or issues involved in that initial idea.
  2. Dig into one or more subtopic issues listed and focus on what can be researched that makes sense. To support your paper you will need sufficient publications discussing the issue or problem.
  3. Pick something that is timely. Keep in mind that in most cases references and others sources of information or data should not be more than five years old.

Deflate the big picture part of the problem and you will inflate your sense as an accomplished writer of college research papers.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is the program director for Government Contracts and Acquisition at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of Reverse Logistics Management and Transportation and Logistics Management. Prior to joining APU, Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His book, RFID Metrics, was published in 2007 by CRC Press and is in revision.