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CPS Online Graduate Studies Research Paper (UNH Manchester Library): Selecting a Research Problem

Selecting a Research Topic - video

The Importance of Selecting a Good Research Topic

Whether assigned a general issue to investigate, you are given a list of problems to study, or you have to identify your own topic to investigate, it is important that the research problem that guides your study is not too broad, otherwise, it will be very difficult to adequately address the problem in the space and time allowed. You could experience a number of problems if your topic is too broad, including:

  • You find too many information sources and, as a consequence, it is difficult to decide what to include or exclude or what are the most important.
  • You find information that is too general and, as a consequence, it is difficult to develop a clear framework for examining the research problem
  • A lack of sufficient parameters that clearly define the research problem makes it difficult to identify and apply the proper methods needed to analyze it.
  • You find information that covers a wide variety of concepts or ideas that can't be integrated into one paper and, as a consequence, you easily trail off into unnecessary tangents.

It is also important to adopt a flexible approach when choosing a topic to investigate. The goal when writing any research paper is to choose a research problem that is focused and time-limited. However, your starting point should not be so narrowly defined that you unnecessarily constrict your opportunity to investigate the topic thoroughly. A research problem that is too narrowly defined leads to any of the following problems:

  • You don't find enough information and what you do find is tangential or irrelevant.
  • You find information that is so specific that it can't lead to any significant conclusions.
  • Your sources cover so few ideas that you can't expand them into a significant paper.
  • The research problem is so case specific that it limits opportunities to generalize or apply the results to other contexts.
  • The significance of the research problem is limited to only a very small, unique population.

Lloyd-Walker, Beverly and Derek Walker. "Moving from Hunches to a Research Topic: Salient Literature and Research Methods." In Designs, Methods and Practices for Research of Project Management. Beverly Pasian, editor. (Burlington, VT: Gower Publishing, 2015), pp. 119-129.

Strategies for Narrowing Your Research Topic

A common challenge when beginning to write a research paper is determining how to narrow down your topic. Even if your professor gives you a specific topic to study, it will almost never be so specific that you won’t have to narrow it down at least to some degree [besides, grading fifty papers that are all about the exact same thing is very boring!].

A topic is too broad to be manageable when you find that you have too many different, and oftentimes conflicting or only remotely related, ideas about how to investigate the research problem. Although you will want to start the writing process by considering a variety of different approaches to studying the research problem, you will need to narrow the focus of your investigation at some point early in the writing process. This way, you don't attempt to do too much in one paper.

Here are some strategies to help narrow your topic into something more manageable:

  • Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of it [e.g., rather than studying the role of food in Eastern religious rituals, study the role of food in Hindu ceremonies, or, the role of one particular type of food among several religions].
  • Components -- determine if your initial variable or unit of analysis can be broken into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely [e.g., a study of tobacco use among adolescents can focus on just chewing tobacco rather than all forms of usage or, rather than adolescents in general, focus on female adolescents in a certain age range who choose to use tobacco].
  • Methodology -- the way in which you gather information can reduce the domain of interpretive analysis needed to address the research problem [e.g., a single case study can be designed to generate data that does not require as extensive an explanation as using multiple cases].
  • Place -- generally, the smaller the geographic unit of analysis, the more narrow the focus [e.g., rather than study trade relations in West Africa, study trade relations between Niger and Cameroon as a case study that helps to explain problems in the region].
  • Relationship -- ask yourself how do two or more different perspectives or variables relate to one another. Designing a study around the relationships between specific variables can help constrict the scope of analysis [e.g., cause/effect, compare/contrast, contemporary/historical, group/individual, male/female, opinion/reason, problem/solution].
  • Time -- the shorter the time period of the study, the more narrow the focus [e.g., study of trade relations between Niger and Cameroon during the period of 2010 - 2016].
  • Type -- focus your topic in terms of a specific type or class of people, places, or phenomena [e.g., a study of developing safer traffic patterns near schools can focus on SUVs, or just student drivers, or just the timing of stoplights in the area].
  • Combination -- use two or more of the above strategies to focus your topic very narrowly.

NOTE: Apply one of the above strategies first to determine if that gives you a manageable research problem to investigate. You will know if the problem is manageable by reviewing the literature on this more specific problem and assessing whether prior research on the narrower topic is sufficient to move forward in your study [i.e., not too much, not too little]. Be careful, however, because combining multiple strategies risks creating the opposite problem--your problem becomes too narrowly defined and you can't locate enough research or data to support your study.


Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Narrowing a Topic. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Narrowing Topics. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Strategies for Narrowing a Topic. University Libraries. Information Skills Modules. Virginia Tech University; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Ways to Narrow Down a Topic. Contributing Authors. Utah State OpenCourseWare.

Strategies for Broadening Your Research Topic

In general, an indication that a research problem is too narrowly defined is that you can't find any relevant or meaningful information about it. If this happens, don't immediately abandon your efforts to investigate the problem because it could very well be an excellent topic of study. A good way to begin is to look for parallels and opportunities for broader associations that apply to the initial research problem. A strategy for doing this is to ask yourself the basic six questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why.

Here is an example of how to apply the six questions strategy to broadening your topic. The research topic is to investigate ways to improve trade relations between Peru and Bolivia. Ask yourself:

  • Who? -- are there other countries involved in the relations between these two countries that might want to challenge or encourage this relationship? Are there particular individuals or special interest groups [e.g., politicians, union leaders, etc.] promoting trade relations or trying to inhibit it? [remember to ask both the individual who question and the collective who question].
  • What? -- what are the specific trading commodities you are examining? Are there commodities not currently traded between Peru and Bolivia that could be? What commodities are not being traded but could be?
  • Where? -- are there examples of other bi-lateral trade agreements that could model the potential for closer trade relations between Peru and Bolivia? Note that the question of where can also relate to specific spatial and geographical issues, such as, are there any barriers impeding transportation of goods in the region?
  • When? -- how long have these countries had or not had trade relations? How far into the future might a trade relationship last given other factors? The question of when can relate to past issues as well as future areas of interest.
  • How? -- how might Peru and Bolivia forge these ties in relation to, for example, long-standing internal conflicts within each country? Note that the how question can also be framed as, "In what way might...." [e.g., In what way might improved trade relations lead to other forms of economic exchanges between the two countries?].
  • Why? -- what advantages can each country gain by pursuing active trade relations? Why might other countries be concerned about closer ties between these two countries? Asking why can raise the "So What?" question applied to your topic and, thus, provide a means of assessing significance.

Reflecting upon these six questions during your initial review of the literature can help you formulate ways to expand the parameters of your initial research problem, providing an opportunity to identify new avenues of investigation and centering your study around gaps in the literature when answers to questions cannot be found. Once you've identified additional directions in which to proceed with your topic, you can try narrowing it down again, if needed.

NOTE:  Do not determine on your own that a research problem is too narrowly defined to find any relevant or meaningful information. Always consult with a librarian before making this assumption because a librarian can help guide you to undiscovered research or suggest ways to design a broader analysis of your research problem.


Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Getting Started With Your Research: A Self-Help Guide to Quality Information, Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Vanderbilt University; Strategies for Broadening a Topic. University Libraries. Information Skills Modules. Virginia Tech University.