Here’s a situation that might sound familiar: You’ve started on your assignment and at first, things seem to be going well. But pretty soon, you run into one of two major research barriers:

(1) The TMI Scenario: it’s almost essay-writing time and you feel pretty good. You’ve got loads of information and you’ve lulled yourself into happy, semi-complacent mode. Surely, among the many articles and books on your topic, you’ll find something relevant! But then you start digging further… and the sheer amount of information starts to feel less impressive and more overwhelming. You’re getting lost in your notes and you can’t tell what’s relevant. You consider changing your topic, but you’ve already gone to all this effort – now what?

(2) The Niche Topic Scenario: this scenario often begins with a single article or book that you really love. It feels like academic fate – a sign from above – it’s exactly what you need! Only when you start researching further does the obscurity of your perfect resource hit you. Maybe it’s the only article ever written on the topic. Maybe it’s never ever been cited. Your frustration increases the longer your search goes on – you’ve been researching for so long and you’re finding nothing! – what gives?

We’ve all been there – and if you’re finding yourself struggling with either of these scenarios, there are options! There’s a good chance you’ll need to revise your topic a little to improve your situation and get back on track. Here are some ways to do just that…

Is your topic SMART?

  1. Specific – Is your topic too broad for the scope of your assignment (e.g. How can you be an ethical leader)? Too narrow (Steve Jobs and the ethical leadership of Apple)? Or just right (e.g. Is being ethical an essential quality of leadership)?
  2. Measurable – What will you be discussing or measuring throughout your paper? (In what ways is X affected by Y? How is X related to Y? What is the impact of X? How are X and Y related?)
  3. Attainable – Can you answer your research question within the limits of your paper? (e.g. You have 7-9 pages; at least 2 pages will be taken up by your introduction, background information, and conclusions. So you have 5-7 pages to actually answer your research question).
  4. Relevant – Is your topic related to the course? Does it meet the expectations of your professor? Are you interested in it?
  5. Timely – Can you answer the question, get all the research you need, and write the assignment before the due date? Also, is your topic too recent? Can there feasibly be a sufficient amount of academic research available on it?

Try turning your topic idea into a researchable question:

  1. Ask the 5W’s of your topic
    Who – what population are you talking about? (e.g. university students)
    What – what about that population? (that they’re stressed and don’t eat well as a result)
    Where – what geographical area are you focusing on? (e.g. Canada)
    When – what time period will you focus on? (e.g. last twenty years)
    Why – why does this topic matter? What does it have to do with your assignment/course?  (e.g. you’ve had lectures on the impact of stress on eating habits, and university students are a subset of the population under a high level of stress). Note: If you can’t answer all 5W’s you will need to do more background research first!
  2. Then ask yourself ‘How’?
    This is the “measurable” part of your SMART question (How are X and Y related; How does X influence Y)
    Asking the question HOW about your 5W’s can often help you develop a great research question! How does stress affect the eating habits of university students in Canada?

And, just in case they’re helpful, here are some common types of research questions (Note: these ideas aren’t mine so please cite the original author, reference below)!

  • Definitions (While many people think X is a Y, can it better thought of as a Z?)
  • Evaluation (Can you argue that your person/activity/quality/thing is good, better or best (or bad, worse, or worst) compared to its peers?
  • Compare/contrast (Are there things/elements/people who are similar or dissimilar to the one you are thinking about?)
  • Explanation (Obvious causes of X; How Y would not have happened without X; Alternative causes to X than what is currently assumed)
  • Counter argument (Argue against what is currently assumed to be true)
  • Justification (Why does something matter?  Argue for something people haven’t previously considered that you think matters a great deal)

Source: Hacker, Diane. (2009). A Canadian writer’s reference, 4th ed. Boston: Bedford.

Note: This blog post has been adapted from Heather Campbell’s blog post on getting relevant results, first published in 2013.