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Research Process: 3. Narrow Your Topic

I have a research project to do, now what? This is a guide that will walk you through the research process, from selecting a topic to putting it all together.

Once you have a sense of your overall direction, you need to narrow it down to a specific topic.

  • Use probing questions. (Why? What if?)
  • Avoid "yes" and "no" questions. 
  • Look at relationships between ideas.

Use your research topic or question to identify the main ideas, which will become your keywords.

How does stress impact college students' ability to prepare for final exams?
keywords = stresscollege studentspreparefinal exams


As you continue searching, refine your search by adding or combining different keywords that further explore your topic. You may find you need to modify your topic.

This is where your mind map comes in handy! Where do you have the greatest concentration of notes? What connections have you made between ideas that suggest an interesting relationship?

Thesis Statements

Your thesis is the short answer to your research question (the rest of your paper or presentation is the long answer). It should be the last sentence of your introduction paragraph, traditionally. Thesis statements should be:

  • Specific - lay out exactly the arguments/reasons you're using in your thesis
  • Contestable - if you can find a definitive yes/no answer within a few minutes of Google searching, it's not arguable enough
  • Narrow - not about all of privacy ever, but this little sliver of a privacy issue in this particular time and society
  • Provable - or at least something you can persuasively argue.

For example,

If I’m writing a paper about cookies, my thesis statement might be:

Oatmeal raisin cookies are the best flavor due to their relatively healthful ingredients, chewy texture, and the ease of their creation which means they’re consistently yummy no matter where you get them from.

Silly topic and casual language… but if you read that at the start of the paper, you’d know right away: 1) I’m talking cookies, 2) I’m discussing oatmeal raisin cookies, 3) I think those are the best flavor, and 4) I have those 3 reasons for saying so, that I’m going to spend the paper telling you more about. (And on that last point, notice I don’t have to get into any personal I or we pronouns – it’s implied that I'm talking and these are my conclusions.)