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Developing a Research Question

Guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper. Examples include social science topics, but the steps can be applied to any subject area.

Choosing a Topic

You've chosen a research topic, and now you need to find resources about it. Before you get too far along, you will need to narrow down your topic 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.

How do I know if my topic is too broad?

Maybe you received feedback that your topic is too broad, or maybe you're having trouble finding relevant resources using your search keywords. Topics that are too broad are difficult to research. Your topic may be too broad if any of the following happens to you:

  • You find too many information sources and it's difficult to determine what is important or relevant, making it hard to decide what to include or exclude.
  • You find information that is too general, so it's difficult to develop a clear framework or argument for examining the topic.
  • You do not have a clearly defined thesis statement that you can analyze.
  • You find information that covers a wide variety of concepts or ideas that can't be integrated into one paper.
  • Your outline or proposal seems like it is trailing off into unnecessary tangents.

Strategies for Narrowing a Topic

Choosing a topic can be a difficult process when starting an assignment or writing a paper, and narrowing your topic is an important step in the research process. Here's one strategy for narrowing a broad topic:

Generate a list of more specific areas of interest (or subtopics) related to your overall topic.

For example:

If your topic is education, subtopics include:

  • Online education
  • Traditional education model
  • Common Core
  • STEM education

If your topic is crime, subtopics include:

  • Juvenile crime
  • Sentencing bias
  • Criminal justice system
  • Racial profiling
  • Prison reform

If your topic is work, subtopics include:

  • Employment and unemployment
  • Wages, salaries and other earnings
  • Job training and educational attainment
  • Commuting to work
  • Workplace organization, innovation, performance
  • Job mobility and turnover

Think about Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Even if your professor assigns you a specific topic to study, you might still have to narrow it down a little. One way to reframe topics is by thinking about who, what, when, where, why, and how. Here are some common ways you can narrow down any research topic:

  • By demographic characteristics: Narrow it down by age group, gender, race, occupation, ethnic group, religious affiliation, immigration status, socioeconomic class, etc. For example:
    • disparities in online learning outcomes for low-income students
    • racial differences in sentencing and bail-setting
    • 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. For example:
    • webcam fatigue in online learning
    • predictive algorithms in criminal sentencing
    • workplace surveillance of employees
  • By location: Focus on a specific region, country, state/province, city, or type of environment (rural vs. urban).
    • remote learning in rural areas without high-speed internet
    • rates of incarceration in the United States versus other parts of the world
    • challenges related to working from home versus working in an office
  • 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. For example:
    • transition to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic
    • the historical roots of the private prison industry
    • challenges faced by college graduates entering the workforce during the 2008 recession
  • By causes: Look for the underlying causes of an issue you are researching. Why does something affect one group more than another? What events or actions have led to a particular outcome? For example:
    • Does requiring students to keep their cameras on during remote learning cause body image issues?
    • How is mass incarceration linked to voter suppression?
    • Why do employers hire fewer college graduates?

Tip: Use more than one of these types of frames/questions to make your topic even more specific.

Developing Your Research Question

Once you have narrowed your topic, you can work on developing a research question that you want to explore. Try brainstorming questions related to your subtopics to develop your research question.


Generate a list of questions that interest you

For example:

Questions related to education and its subtopics:

  • What is the future of online education?
  • Is the traditional education model the most effective?
  • Does the Common Core result in better prepared students?
  • What are the effects of focusing on STEM education?
  • How can we better fund education in America?

Questions related to crime and its subtopics:

  • Why are children being tried as adults?
  • How should drug offenses be addressed within the criminal justice system?
  • How is racial profiling affecting arrest demographics?
  • Do for-profit prisons incentivize putting more people in prison?
  • Is the purpose of prison to rehabilitate or punish people?
  • What are some alternatives to incarceration and how do they affect crime rates?

Questions related to work and its subtopics:

  • What are the earnings differences between groups (men and women, university graduates, high school graduates, immigrants, etc.) of workers?
  • What are the effects of absenteeism in a specific industry?
  • How does sexual harassment affect workplace relationships?
  • How do family leave policies impact turnover and retention?

Once you have generated as many research questions as you can for narrowing the topic, choose the option that is most interesting to you and that you think will best fit the length and purpose of your assignment.


Focusing your Research Question

Your project’s focus will be the research question you choose to explore and the conclusions you reach. Begin the research and writing process using the following tips:

  • Research your question: Now that you have a research question, you can begin exploring possible answers to it. Your research question allows you to begin researching in a clear direction. Use keywords from your question to search library databases or Google Scholar.
  • Create a thesis statement: Once you have a clear understanding of your research question and have developed some answers or conclusions, you can create your thesis statement. Your paper or project will be an extension of your thesis statement where you explain and support your focused topic very specifically.
  • Stay flexible: As you continue researching, you may find that you have new information, new answers, or conclusions about your topic. Remember that you can always modify your thesis. Most writers do not really finalize their thesis statement until the last draft of their paper, so think about the focus as a starting point. Your thesis is not set in stone -- it's a flexible concept that is subject to change, and adjusting it is part of the normal research process.