Developing a Research Focus

What is the difference between a subject and a topic? What about between a research question and a research problem? We often use these terms interchangeably, but they mean different things. As you begin to develop a personal research process, it is important to define these terms and be able to differentiate them. By the end of this section, you will be able to articulate a research question and develop a framework for a future study.

Topic vs. Subject

The best way to think about the difference between a topic and a subject is to think about the classes you took in high school. You took classes called “American History” and “World Literature,” but within those classes you studied more specific topics, like the Spanish-American War or The Aeneid. Academic research is similar. Your “subject” is your specialization within your major. If you are majoring in Communication Sciences and Disorders, for example, you may be most interested in the field of Audiology. Audiology is a research subject.

You wouldn’t be able to write a research paper on audiology, however. It’s far too broad; there are entire courses—and graduate degrees—for audiology. The first step in developing a research focus is to narrow your general subject to a more specific topic.

Here are some examples of how common subjects can be broken up into more specific topics:

Subject Topics
  1. Responsibility of high schools to instruct students on budgeting/financial knowledge
  2. Presence and/or role of ethics education in the higher education accountancy curriculum
  3. Deceptive marketing tactics of credit/debit card companies towards college students
  4. Male to female ratio of accounting firm partners and the profession’s responsibility to promote equity
Communication Sciences & Disorders
  1. Reception of cochlear implants within Deaf culture
  2. Digital technologies and communication among the Deaf
  3. Use of teletherapy versus face-to-face therapy to treat a range of disorders
  4. Use of Standard English in speech therapy
Criminal Justice Studies
  1. Conjugal visitation and its effects on prisoners and their families
  2. Police ethics training and its deterrence of behaviors such as accepting bribes
  3. Efficacy of drug prevention programs in secondary education
  4. Sexual assault against women in the military (efforts to reduce incidents or punishment of offenders)
  5. Legitimacy of behavioral/criminal profiling
  6. Backlog of rape test kits
  7. Prison health care
  1. Teacher salaries and effects on recruitment and retention
  2. Teacher training in STEM and impact on students’ knowledge in these fields
  3. Teacher and administrator training to respond to bullying
  4. Decline in male teachers (causes and effects) and efforts to increase recruitment and retention
  5. Teacher perceptions of ELL students and the effects of those perceptions on instruction
  6. Standardized testing biases according to socioeconomic class, race, etc.
  1. Liability of geologists/environmental experts for effects of natural disasters
  2. Groundwater contamination and responsibility for cleanup
  3. Oil prospecting and private land rights
Health, Exercise Science, & Recreation Management
  1. Funding for public parks as a means to reduce obesity
  2. Correlation between lack of minority coaches in college athletics and academic performance of minority athletes, and how this should impact coach recruitment efforts
  3. Assessing university strategies to address favoritism of or academic dishonesty among student athletes
Nutrition & Hospitality Management
  1. Role of local governments and/or businesses in responding to food deserts
  2. Food insecurity among college students and the role of universities/colleges in combating it
  3. Responsibility of hotels to participate in environmental initiatives
  4. Effects of third-party bookings (travel websites) on hotel revenues
  5. Role of social media in marketing
Paralegal Studies
  1. Lack of diversity in the paralegal/law profession and responsibility for improving diversity
  2. Lack of legal protection/legal recourse in the paralegal workplace
Social Work
  1. Use of 12 Step programs to treat conditions/disorders
  2. Effectiveness of training for social workers to detect abuse
  3. Quality of suicide prevention education for undergraduate social work majors
  4. Causes of or potential solutions for burnout among specific types of social workers
  5. Aging out of the foster care system

As you can see from the chart above, topics are much more specific than subjects and they are more manageable to use when determining a research focus. A topic doesn’t give you enough to dive in and start drafting, but it is enough to help you develop a framework for turning the topic into a successful research project.

So how do you get from subject to topic? The next section will give you some strategies.

Finding your Topic

Now that you understand the connections between your major and your discipline and how these create an academic discourse community, you are ready to begin sifting through the current topics, issues, and concerns that your discourse community is focused on at present. In academia, as elsewhere, there are trending topics. These topics reflect what people in your discipline think is most important at the moment. It might be helpful for you to consider what you have discussed in your major courses, or what you and those in your major discuss most often. What challenges do your field and its practitioners face now and in the future? When determining your topic, you will likely go through a number of steps. These will help you to sort through the many topics you will encounter and to select a topic that is relevant, current, and interesting to you. The best research topics are well defined, sufficiently narrow, and part of a larger problem in your discipline.

Identifying a topic

To select a viable topic for your research project, you should:

  1. Brainstorm about topics that you have encountered in your discourse community;
  2. Select several potential topics based on your interest(s);
  3. Ensure that the topic is manageable (i.e., that it is narrow enough);
  4. Ensure that scholarly material is available;
  5. Ensure that the topic is focused on a solvable problem;
  6. List academic terms associated with this topic;
  7. Use generated academic terms to search databases focused on your discipline; and
  8. Define your topic as a focused research question.

First, have a look at this resource that describes the rather intricate process of finding a research topic that is sufficiently narrow, yet still present enough in the literature of your discourse community to support a semester-long project:

Check your understanding

Let’s say your assignment is to research an environmental issue. This is a broad starting point, which is a normal first step.

One way to customize your topic is to consider how different disciplines approach the same topic in different ways. For example, here’s how the broad topic of “environmental issues” might be approached from different perspectives:

  • Social Sciences: Economics of Using Wind to Produce Energy in the United States
  • Sciences: Impact of Climate Change on the Habitat of Desert Animals in Arizona
  • Arts and Humanities: Analysis of the Rhetoric of Environmental Protest Literature