Discovering, Narrowing, and Focusing a Researchable Topic

Picking a broad research topic is easy. Turning that topic into something you can actually manage to research and write about in a fixed number of pages is very, very hard. Whether you are studying a topic in the humanities, the social sciences, the liberal arts, or the hard sciences, every possible subject is both impossibly broad and endlessly idiosyncratic.

To write a coherent essay about any research topic requires whittling away at the sheer mass of information available, organizing that information into something that makes narrative or analytical sense, and then writing competently about it. But how? Winnowing your research project down into a manageable task requires a three-pronged process: discovery, narrowing, and focusing.


First, you must arrive at a general research topic. Your field of study is probably limited by either your course or your major, but within every broad subject there are dozens or hundreds of fertile subfields. Spend a little time getting acquainted with the full breadth of your subject area. Go back to the introductory textbooks for your subject; intro books are excellent at providing a broad sample of everything within a large field.

Also consider the overlap between your subject of interest and the other topics you are passionate about. Are you a psych major and a sports buff? Sports psychology is a rich and highly profitable field. Are you a history major and an audiophile? Consider studying musical history, or the history of a particular style of music or instrument. You might be surprised how interrelated your passions really are.


Once you have performed a broad, cursory review of your topic, it’s time to get more selective. You can’t write about everything in your paper, after all-- it’s easy to overwhelm yourself with excessive research, which can lead to stress and procrastination.

To help ease the narrowing process, eliminate all subfields you find uninteresting, overly complex, or too difficult to understand. For a sociology major, this might mean deciding to ignore economic policy in favor of educational interventions. For a business student, this may mean ignoring management topics and putting more attention on finance.


Conduct a bit more research on your subfield of interest, and try to arrive at a highly specific subset of information. Many students make the mistake of searching far too widely for information once they have arrived at a subfield to study. In fact, selecting a subarea to study is only the first half of the battle!

Let’s say you’ve already decided to write a research paper on sports psychology, for example. You do not want to waste your time reading everything there is to read about this topic. Instead, think of a particular research question, for example, “What facilitates performance in high-stress team sports?” and conduct research on only this topic. Your time will be used far more efficiently this way.