Getting Started
Finding Resources
Evaluating Resources
Citing Your Sources
ERIC Thesaurus
Research Databases
Database Tutorials
Writing Dissertations
Library Services

University Libraries


Getting Started

  1. Select Your Topic
  2. Locate Background Information
  3. Form a Thesis Statement
  4. Organize Your Topic into Concepts
  5. Identify Search Terms

1. Select Your Topic

Selecting a topic is the first step in the research process and it is not an easy task. It is very likely that you will feel overwhelmed and uncertain at the very beginning. There are some approaches you can take to ease your anxiety and choose an appropriate topic.

  • Understand the scope or requirements of your research project. When in doubt, clarify with your professor.
  • Select a topic that interests you. This could motivate you to get engaged in your research more quickly, as well as make reading and writing more enjoyable.
  • Choose a topic that has sufficient information to support your argument. A preliminary exploration of the topic using books, journals, newspapers, and Web resources can help you find out if there are adequate sources for your research.
  • Pick a topic that is focused, yet presents multiple facets. This will allow you to narrow or broaden the topic if necessary.

The following is a list of book chapters that provide guidance in selecting/defining a research, thesis, or dissertation topic/question.

Brause, R. S. (2000). Writing your doctoral dissertation: Invisible rules for success. London; New York: Falmer Press. [LB 2369 B72 2000]
“Identifying your dissertation topic and your research questions” pp. 37-47.

Dunleavy, P. (2003). Authoring a PhD: How to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. [LB 2369 D85 2003]
“Defining the central research questions” pp. 18-26.

Hawley, P. (2003). Being bright is not enough: The unwritten rules of doctoral study. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [LB 2386 H38 2003]
“Choosing a dissertation topic” pp. 35-51.

Martin, R. (1980). Writing and defending a thesis or dissertation in psychology and education. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas. [BF 76.5 M36]
“Selecting the research topic” pp. 3-18.

Ogden, E. H. (1993). Completing your doctoral dissertation or master’s thesis in two semesters or less. Lancaster, PA: Technomic. [REF LB 2369 O33 1993]
“Selecting a dissertation topic” pp. 41-55.

Rudestam, K. E. & Newton, R. R. (2007). Surviving your dissertation: A comprehensive guide to content and process. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications. [LB 2369 R83 2007]
“Selecting a suitable topic” pp. 9-22.

2. Locate Background Information

Once you have selected a topic, try to gain an overview of the scope, background, theories, important figures, significant events, and issues surrounding this topic. You can gather this information from subject encyclopedias and handbooks.

A subject encyclopedia or handbook also provides explanations of terminology and the jargon for the field, introduces you to subtopics, and leads you to other relevant sources through its bibliography at the end of each entry. In addition, cross-references provided by the index can broaden your view of the topic.

The following links will take you to some important encyclopedias and handbooks in Education.

3. Form a Thesis Statement

After reading about your topic in subject encyclopedias or handbooks, you will have a basic understanding of the various issues, key concepts, and facts associated with it. With the background information, you should be able to focus your topic. Based on your focal points and how they relate to each other, you then form a thesis statement for your research.

A thesis statement is usually one or two complete sentences describing the precise question or issue which you are going to discuss in your paper. It can be a debatable point that requires you take a stand and defend your position or a claim that needs explanations and evidences. You need to develop your arguments in response to the How? Why? and What? questions prompted by your thesis statement. Please consult the research guide Creating a Thesis Statement for tips and examples for writing thesis statements. You can also look up the following books and article for additional information on formulating hypotheses and research questions.

Agee, J. (2009). Developing qualitative research questions: a reflective process. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 22(4), 431-447. doi:10.1080/09518390902736512.

Bryant, M. T. (2004). The portable dissertation advisor. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press. [LB 1742 B79 2004]
“Research questions” pp. 49-60.

Cooley, L. & Lewkowicz, J. (2003). Dissertation writing in practice: turning ideas into text. Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. [LB 2369 C66X 2003]
“Hypotheses and research questions” pp. 31-36.

Hernon, P. & Schwartz, C. (2007). What is a problem statement? Library & Information Science Research, 29(3), 307-309.

Rudestam, K. E. & Newton, R. R. (2007). Surviving your dissertation : a comprehensive guide to content and process. Los Angeles, CA : SAGE Publications. [LB 2369 R83 2007]
“Literature review and statement of the problem” pp. 61-85.

4. Organize Your Topic into Concepts

Identify the main concepts in your thesis statement. Make a list of related terms synonyms and related words or phrases that best describe the concepts. This strategy will allow you to construct an effective search using online catalogs or electronic databases. For example, if your thesis were "The effects of online courses on academic performance in higher education." you might make a list like this:

Keywords that
express your concepts
Related terms or synonyms
for the keywords in column one
Concept 1
online courses
distance education
Concept 2
academic achievement
student evaluation
Concept 3
higher education

5. Identify Search Terms

Whether or not you use correct terms to research your topic will greatly impact your search effectiveness and outcome. As mentioned above, it is useful to brainstorm for a list of keywords, synonyms, and related terms based on the main concepts of your research topic. Below are some tools and tips for you to identify appropriate search terms:

  • Indexes of your textbooks
  • Thesaurus of ERIC descriptors (REF Z 695.1 E3 E34) in the Reference Collection. You can also access the Thesaurus online through the Web site for Education Resources Information Center (ERIC). For samples of terms indexed in ERIC Thesaurus, please see Examples of ERIC Thesaurus Descriptors.
  • Library of Congress Subject Headings (REF Z695 U4752X 2002) in the Reference Collection. The subject headings function like a thesaurus, allowing you to find the relevant materials about a specific topic with greater precision than keywords. The following are some examples of the Library of Congress Subject Headings:
    Education-United States-Curricula
    Education - Cross Cultural Studies
    Education, Higher - Administration
    Education - Research - Methodology
    Education - Statistics
    Education - Study and Teaching
    Educational Accountability - United States
    Educational Evaluation
    Language Arts
    Mainstreaming in Education - United States
    Multicultural Education - United States
    Second Language Acquisition
  • Look up subject list or thesaurus for a specific education related online database. Use narrower terms (NT), broader terms (BT), and related terms (RT) to make your topic more focused or expand your searches.
  • When you find a record highly related to your topic on a research database, note the terms listed in the subject or descriptor fields and use them in later searches.
  • Talk to a librarian at the University Library Reference Desk.