Coming up with a topic

Any assignment, whether major or minor, is usually easier and more enjoyable if it is focused on a topic about which you are interested and excited. One of the questions to think about when coming up with a topic, then, is first and foremost: What interests you? What do you care about, in the context of the assignment or course? Taking this as a starting point will lead to fruitful possibilities for the topic of your assignment.

  • Brainstorming also can help. Jot down informal notes without worrying about grammar or complete sentences. Make lists. Focus narrowly, or use association to come up with potential linkages between ideas.
  • Diagrams, maps, sketches can help generate ideas and allow for making connections between ideas.
  • Freewriting is another part of research and writing that is also a quick and informal way to develop an idea. In contrast to the lists or phrases that often make up brainstorming, freewriting is an opportunity to write and elaborate more fully – while still taking liberties with grammar or specific sentence structure. 
  • Visit the Center for Writing to get help with developing ideas and research topics.
  • Talk with someone about your ideas. Instructors, professors, and TAs may be the best people to check in with about your developing topic. Other students in your course or major can also be a help with idea development.

Getting started with research

As you start your research, you will want to keep in mind the types of sources expected in your assignment and keep track of the kinds of sources you find.

U of M Library resources

Especially when working on a research paper or project, you have to find sources–such as those characterized above–to build your central argument.

The ability to find the information you need, and to carry out research, are fundamental skills.

The University of Minnesota Libraries give you access to all types of information. As opposed to using a general search engine such as Google, the library can provide more focused, narrow, and potentially more relevant searches.

You can search the library quite generally, or search within specific databases or particular journals. Databases organized by subject can be very helpful. Along with a variety of other fields, the library has such databases and other resources specifically organized for geography.

Is the source scholarly?

One of the first questions to think about is whether or not a source may be considered “scholarly”. Scholarly, or academic, sources are not the only sources acceptable for work at the university level. But they do make up the majority of research and writing within which professors and graduate students situate their own work, and often make up the bulk of assigned readings and coursework for undergraduates.

The University has a short guide to sift through sources–Popular or Scholarly? This tool can help you manage resources and make decisions about research to include in your writing.

Refining your topic

A topic you are considering may be so broad that it will be hard to successfully write about it based on the expectations for the assignment. Sometimes your topic will be too narrow, depending on the expectations of your instructor as outlined in the assignment. You may get feedback to either narrow or expand your topic – but how do you do this?

Narrowing your topic

Look for specific examples, places, and factors to narrow your topic. 
Consider focusing on particular and important aspects of the larger context. A specific example can provide a way to focus your topic so that you can develop a better set of questions to get your research underway. Creating a more manageable, specific topic is a way to assure your thesis is completable. 

Developing a thesis

In many assignments, you are asked to develop an argument. This can also be thought of as a claim or assertion about your topic and is called the thesis of your paper. You will develop several key supporting points to your thesis based on your interpretation and explanation of the evidence you present, in order to defend your assertion about the topic. The thesis is communicated by the thesis statement–a sentence that states your assertion and suggests your interpretation and analysis. Most often the thesis statement comes towards the end of the Introduction. Thesis statements sometimes begin with “I will argue that…”.

Identifying a ‘problem’ within your topic

The thesis and the topic are not the same things. Once you have identified your topic–usually a fairly broad area of interest–you need to think about how it might become an interesting ‘problem’ or question that you can explore and answer within the context and constraints of the assignment (e.g. a 3-5 page paper for a particular geography course). This process might be called ‘problematizing’ your topic.

For example:

  • Topic: “Universities and their host cities”–way too big!
  • Narrowing the topic: “How large American universities affect their host city”–still unwieldy!
  • The topic understood as a problem: “What is the impact of the University of Minnesota on adjacent Minneapolis neighborhoods?”
  • Even more specific: “How has housing in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood of Minneapolis changed in recent years, and what role has the University of Minnesota played in bringing these changes about?”

This last and more specific set of questions points directly to a particular institution, identifies a neighborhood adjacent to the institution, and identifies a single significant feature (housing). If this were your project, you must now decide about a time frame, select which housing-related variables will be examined, and consider how to find the information needed.

There is no formula for when or how to do this–but it will help to begin focusing your interests within your topic early in the process. You may need to go back and forth between (1) researching the available information and existing work on your topic, and (2) refining how you define the problem within your topic that you will eventually develop into your thesis.

The University of Minnesota Libraries are a great place to find information and get help with research.
The Center for Writing peer writing consultants can help with coming up with a topic and writing your paper.