The Daunting Search for a Research Topic and Question: Where Should I Begin?

Firestone is not only beautiful in person, but its virtual resources can also provide you with the necessary tools to begin your research journey

     I know the feeling all too well of sitting down to write a paper and debating for hours about which topic to choose. There are thousands of research questions to explore, so how could you possibly decide on one, and better yet devise a significant and impactful paper from it? These thoughts have swirled through my head just this past week as I sat down to write a paper for one of my law courses. There was so much information that I wanted to include, therefore I struggled to pick one topic. So if you are feeling this way too, remember that you are not not the only one who has encountered these obstacles. I would like to share with you the strategy that I use to break out of this rut and discover a topic and question that I’m both passionate about and can conduct appropriate research on. This is by no means the only way to break you out of a tough writers block, but hopefully my advice can help you move along on your research journey.

     To begin, I would ask yourself: what am I really interested in? This sounds obvious, but it is easy to write about the first topic you find or the topic your teacher seems to touch on the most, which might not excite you as much as other topics would. Therefore, when searching for a question, think about what you would actually like to discover while researching because you will most likely spend a lot of time on this topic, and who knows, it could even transform into a thesis topic idea. For example, in my law course, I asked myself this question, and I realized that I am interested in the impact of Supreme Court decisions on minorities, and so this is where my research began. I chose this general topic because it was fascinating to me, but also because it was relevant to the course and assignment, which is something else that you should consider here.

     After thinking about what you truly would enjoy to learn about, I usually dive right into research in order to narrow down my topic and research question. I look over class content, scholarly articles and books from the Princeton Library search tool, and other papers that one can request from the University (the Princeton libraries will still accommodate you, despite COVID-19). For my law course, I have been exploring papers on HeinOnline, which is a more legal-specific resource. This research is what can spark your Einstein idea; you may stumble upon a topic or idea that really inspires you. 

     Now comes the hard part: transforming your topic into a question. I strongly recommend that you see Taylor Griffith ‘18 article on this process, because she will walk you step by step on how this can be done through using a “Magic Research Statement”. In addition to the advice she offers, I believe that this is a great time to meet with your professor. You can share your thoughts and potential ideas with them and they can advise you on where to go next since they will know best. They may suggest a book to read, a certain question that they themselves would like you to explore, and they may even introduce you to a new topic altogether. Through meeting with your professor, and utilizing other resources such as the Writing Center, you can come up with a clear and effective research question; one that you are both passionate about and that fits into the scholarly conversation.

     Every student experiences a time when they simply do not know how to begin their research process. They may feel overwhelmed, confused, or torn between two topics. The most important thing to remember when you feel this way is that you are not alone! Just a few weeks ago, it was difficult for me to devise a research question for my law class, but through working hard and following these strategies I was able to do it, and you can too! Use your own outside interests to help brainstorm ideas, browse some materials, and reach out to your peers and professors. There are many resources available to help you succeed in your research journey and those are exactly where you should begin.

Ryan Champeau, Social Sciences Correspondent ‘23