How to find a research topic

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Looking for a research topic is never an easy task. You just don’t know where to start, yet. However, whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student or a researcher, it typically begins with what problem do you want to solve. You may begin to ask yourself about the following questions:

  • What is your motive for the research?
  • Do you want to affect policies?
  • Do you want to come up with innovative ideas?

If you still don’t have a research topic, in this blog post, I will share to you the steps I took in finding one.

Note: I did everything through desktop research. Most of the literature I gathered for my previous research were from Elsevier, a well-known publisher for science- and health-related studies.

RELATED: How to write your thesis paper

1. Identify a research area you want to focus on.

Depending on the field you are in, you must first identify what area you want to research on. In my case, since my field is energy, so I decided to do research that revolves around the topic energy. It also typically begins with what problem do you really want to answer.

2. Decide on the boundaries of your research.

You must identify the extent of your research. The idea is that you must keep your research manageable with a given time frame.

  • scope – global, national, individual project, …
  • scale – If global, do you just want to consider 5 countries? If national, what sectors do you want to include in the study? If an individual project, what communities are covered by that project you wish to include?
  • time horizon– the length of time you wish to cover be it in days, week, months, or years

3. Gather literature you find interesting.

Sorting through literature may seem daunting at first, given the available studies you can find. But once you built a process on how to do it, the task will become familiar and relatively easy.

These are the steps I took to make the search systematic before downloading the literature I find interesting:

  • title – It captures what the study is about.
  • abstract – If you find the title interesting, read through the abstract to get a general view of the scope, scale, and time horizon the research used.
  • introduction – If you find the abstract interesting, then read on through the introduction. By doing so, it will help you have an idea about the researcher’s motivation for conducting the study.

Only download the files you find interesting to work on for your research. Limit them to at most five to narrow down the literature you will further look into.

4. Scan through each literature you gathered.

With the selected few, say five studies, read through them and identify the following:

  • data – Knowing the data they used allows to check whether the study can be replicated. In research, data is vital because it sets the motion for your study.
  • methodology – Knowing the method they used helps you identify what methodologies are existing in the field of study you are interested in.

At this level of scrutiny, choose one study you want to replicate. However, replication isn’t the goal. Doing a research requires you to come up with something that is never done before, hence, the fifth step.

5. Identify the research gap.

Research gap is something the previous studies should have considered but did not or a method that could be used for a more robust result. A research gap could also mean that the study you want to replicate is not yet done in the scope you set for your research.

Once you identified the research gap among the existing literature in the field of study you chose, then you can fill that gap by your own research.

And that’s how you come up with a research topic.


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