How to Pick a Research Topic

Struggling to pick a research topic? We’ve all been there. Starting can be one of the hardest parts of research. There’s so much pressure to have a good topic that finding one becomes difficult. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips to ease this process.

1. Consider your personal interests. If this is a JP or thesis, you will be spending between a semester and an entire year delving into your topic. Make sure you like it! Finding something that genuinely piques your interest will help keep you engaged months down the road. I am lucky to have found Brazilian art therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira, whose work — after writing a JP about her and conducting my senior thesis research abroad on her — continues to keep me curious.

As I develop my thesis research, I hope that I continue to be interested in learning more. After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!
Crossing my fingers that my thesis topic continues to intrigue! After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!

2. Read a little about something that fascinates you. Interested in learning more about Mayan basket-weaving traditions? Find a few books or articles about it and start reading! Afterward, assess your feelings. Are you intrigued to learn more, or did you get bored halfway through? Read these signs — they can help you distinguish between topics that pique your interest at first, and those that will give you the stamina to keep reading months later.


3. Set up a meeting with your professors. I’ve written before about how helpful it can be to tap into what your professors might think. For my thesis, I knew that I was interested in a community project in Rio that used art to foster mental health, but wasn’t sure where to start. So I set up a meeting with a professor to talk about it. He suggested I look into Nise da Silveira, and I haven’t looked back since.

4. Think about your time spent outside of Princeton. At its best, research at Princeton should reach beyond the Orange Bubble. One good way to ensure this is to draw from your experiences during summer internships, classes abroad, and personal travels. Melissa talks about this in her previous post. In my case, my thesis was inspired by an art project that I visited in Rio. Pulling from my experiences outside of Princeton has made my work both more widely relevant and more personal.

5. Test ideas out in classes. Have an idea for a future JP or thesis? Write about it for a final paper! During my sophomore year, I took Gender and Sexuality in the Americas. Knowing I was interested in writing my JP about the Mexican third-gender option muxe, I took advantage of the class’s free-form final paper to further explore the topic. Not only did this project affirm my interest in this topic, but also gave me a head start on my research.

Keep in mind: none of these tips are hard and fast rules. However, these certainly helped me write two JPs and begin my thesis. If you continue to struggle, try not to stress too much. Topics and focuses can change. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is choose something on an impulse and see where it takes you.

— Dylan Blau Edelstein, Humanities Correspondent