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Academic Research : Topic Development & Keywords

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Starting Your Research

Jump to a Section

Section 1: Generate Topic Ideas

Section 2: Gather General Background Information

Section 3: Focus Your Topic

Learn more about selecting a research topic by visiting
the Choosing a Research Topic guide.

Generate Topic Ideas

Always select a topic that interests you.  If you are interested in what you are researching, the assignment will go much smoother than if you are just selecting a topic because.  You will be spending a lot of time on this topic, so choosing something interesting. 

Brainstorm for Ideas

Ask yourself the following questions while thinking about your assignment.  Jot down notes to what comes to mind for possible topic ideas.

  • Do you have a strong opinion on a current social or political controversy? 
  • Did you read or see a news story that has piqued your interest?
  • Do you have a personal issue, problem, or interest that you would like to know more about?
  • Is there an aspect of the class lectures that you are interested in learning more about?

Tips for Choosing a Topic

  • Choose a topic that interests you.
  • Pick a manageable topic, not too broad and not too narrow.  Reading background information can help you choose and limit the scope of your topic.
  • Review lecture notes and class readings for ideas.
  • Check with your professor to make sure your topic fits with the assignment. 

Gather General Background Information

So you have a topic or two in mind.  Great!  Now it is time to gather some background information so you can decide if the topic is good or not, and what aspects of the larger topic can help to focus your research further. 

Find Background Information

  • Encyclopedias 
  • Wikipedia
    • Wikipedia is a great place to start your research.  You can gather great background information on your topic and see what sub-topics and categories fall within the larger topic.  Just remember, don't stop your research here. 
  • Search Engines
    • Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo are great places to look for background information on topics.  Just remember to be wary of what you read and not to believe everything you see. 

Why Use Background Sources?

  • Learn important dates and events around your topic.
  • Browse a chronology or timeline for your topic.
  • Discover what scholars are talking about when they talk about your topic.
  • Find out who the experts are.  Discover who researches and writes about your topic. 
  • Explore keywords and subject-specific vocabulary that can be useful for database searches. 
  • Find bibliographies that lead to additional resources. 

Focus Your Topic 

Keep your topic manageable and not too broad.  But also watch out for making a topic too specific, because you will have trouble locating any information and research at all. 

Narrow Your Focus

  • Geographical Area
    • Example: What educational issues are most important in the Midwestern United States?
  • Culture
    • Example: How does education affect new American immigrants? 
  • Time Frame
    • Example: What are the most prominent educational issues of the last 10 years?
  • Discipline
    • Example: How does education level affect the health care industry?
  • Population Group
    • Example: What is the effect on education reform to college students?

Your topic may be too difficult to search if the focus is too specific or far too broad.  Try and avoid the following:

  • Locally Confined 
    • These are topics that are covered in local newspapers, if at all.
    • Example: How does education reforms affect students at Mitchell High School?
  • Recent
    • If your topic just happened, there is a good chance that other academics haven't had time to write books or journal articles about it yet.  Recent events will most likely be covered in newspaper and magazine articles, and found on the internet.
  • Broadly Interdisciplinary
    • You can be overwhelmed with superficial information if the topic covers multiple topic areas.
    • Example: How can education contribute to the culture, politics, and society of Midwestern states. 
  • Popular
    • You will only find articles about sports figures and high-profile celebrities in popular magazines (such as People and Sports Illustrated).  These sources are not considered academic. 
    • Example: How do Kim Kardashian and Kanye West educate their children?

Jump to a Section

Section 1: Write Out Your Research Question

Section 2: Remove Filler Words

Section 3: Identify Related Words

Section 4: Combine Keywords & Search

Learn more about developing keywords by visiting
the Developing Keywords guide.

Start with your research question or thesis statement and write it out.  For help creating a research question or thesis statement and choosing a research topic, visit the Choosing a Research Topic guide. 

Example: How did Disneyland's first year of operation affect California's economy? 

Cross out the filler words.  These are words that are important to a topic when spoken as a question, but don't get to the heart of the topic. 

Example: How did Disneyland's first year of operation affect California's economy? 

Now you are left with fewer words, but you might be able to narrow your keyword list down a bit more.  Looking at the words left in the example above, I know that Disneyland, California, and Economy are keywords that focus in on the main points of the topic.  The keywords First Year and Operation may be too specific, but do provide context to the question, so I will keep them as options.  Also, the keywords California and Economy should be placed together because on their own they are both broad topics, but together they form context.  The same can be said with First Year and Operation.

Example Keyword List:

  • Disneyland
  • First Year Operation 
  • California Economy 

Begin brainstorming related terms and synonyms.  Search Google and Wikipedia, use a thesaurus such as, and always keep in mind that you should be thinking of words and phrases that both narrow your focus and broaden it out (within reason). 

Keyword Related Terms


Walt Disney

Disneyland Park

California Economy


Market growth

State income 

First Year Operation

First Year




Now you have a long list of keywords you can use to search the databases.  Combine your keywords together using Boolean Operators, quotation marks to search exact phrases, and parenthesis to search specific terms together. 

Example: Disneyland AND "California economy"

As you search, keep notes of words and phrases that keep appearing in the articles you are researching.  These additional keywords are what the experts in the field are using, and should be used by you during your search. 

Visit the Database Search Tips guide to learn more about searching the library's databases.

Choosing a Research Topic
Guided Handout

Use this document to follow the librarian's process and provided examples to help develop strong keywords.  Download the Word Doc and fill it out.  You can either edit the handout digitally or print it out. 

For assistance, contact a librarian. 


Developing Strong Keywords 
Guided Handout

Use this document to follow the librarian's process and provided examples to help develop strong keywords.  Download the Word Doc and fill it out.  You can either edit the handout digitally or print it out. 

For assistance, contact a librarian. 

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