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Knocking the Research Topic Down to Size

"I'm going to write about changes in the 21st century!" announces our graduate student.

"I'm focusing on bilingual education."

Very ambitious, wouldn't you say? Do you see a problem here? These aren't topics - they're general subject areas. These students have not yet asked the question, "What about it? What about bilingual education? And what kind of changes are you talking about anyway?"

Such questions represent the first step a student must take to narrow down a general subject area into a workable, manageable paper, the kind that focuses in on a clearly identified issue and examines it thoroughly within the allotted time and space. After all, you can't - and undoubtedly don't want to write an entire book every time you're given a paper to write. Narrowing down is a skill that you must develop to survive in graduate school.

Narrowing down a topic usually means focusing on a small part of the topic or on a particular approach to it. Consider, for example, the possible research questions developed from the broad subject area of bilingual education:

Should bilingual education be extended to monolingual children? 

What teaching methods work best in bilingual classrooms?

What reasons do parents have for sending (or not sending) their children to bilingual schools?

Are children placed in bilingual programs more successful in later grades?

These more specific questions can give your research a sense of direction.

It is also useful to run yourself through a series of self?examining questions in order to orient yourself to your task.

A thesis or dissertation can make use of all three approaches, so you will need to ask yourself these questions as you progress. A shorter paper usually emphasizes one approach over the others (and some will argue that all papers by definition are argumentative).

--and finally --

  1. What exactly is my purpose in this paper?
    1. Do I want to convince a particular audience that I am right about a specific point? (This is an argumentative purpose.)
    2. Do I need to draw general conclusions from facts and specific evidence? (This is an analytical purpose.)
    3. Do I want to explain something in detail and show its role in a larger context? (This is an explanatory purpose.)
  2. Who is my intended audience? (True, it's your instructor first and your classmates second at this point in your career. But it won't always be this way, and you might as well get into good habits early on.)
  3. What is my persona as writer? How do I view myself in relation to the issue?
  4. What is my proposed thesis or hypothesis? (This is crucial. We'll return to this.)

Reaching the stage where you are capable of writing a preliminary thesis is perhaps the hardest part of this entire process. You may feel as if you're swimming in a vast, formless sea without any sense of direction. You have no idea whether your source reading will turn out to be useful or whether you're just wasting your time. As you progress, you may even find yourself throwing out notes and entire sources as irrelevant. This is actually a good sign - it means you're beginning to discriminate between useful and useless sources, and that means you're one step closer to transforming that preliminary thesis into your final statement.

Finally, be patient and keep moving. In due course, the vast sea will gradually contract into a well-defined back yard swimming pool!

To give you perspective, here's a visualization: