How to narrow down your research topic

September 17, 2017
Image courtesy of patrisyu at

Image courtesy of patrisyu at

One of the things novice and emerging researchers can struggle with is learning how to narrow down their research topic. Here are some resources that I’ve personally collected and curated to help you tackle this complex element of developing your research project. At the time of writing this post, all the links worked and none of these resources had pop-up ads, paywalls or require any kind of payment. These are freely available and should be widely accessible by students in most areas.

Written resources:

USC Libraries Research Guide – Organizing your social sciences research paper: Narrowing a Topic Idea –

USU: Ways to Narrow Down a Topic –

Thompson Rivers University: How to Narrow Your Research Topic –

BYU LibGuide: Step-by-Step Guide & Research Rescue: Finding and Narrowing your Topic –

Temple University: Narrowing Your Topic from Subject to Thesis (1-page worksheet) –

Starting a PhD: Choosing and Developing Your Research Topic –

U Penn: Plain Talk About Your Dissertation Proposal –

You Tube videos:

Kansas State University Libraries: How to Develop a Good Research Topic –

M. Moilanen: Now to Narrow Down your Research Topic –

Laurentian University: Narrowing Your Topic –

Amanda Dinscore: Narrowing Your Topic –

Steely Library NKU: Developing a Research Question –

Check out these related posts on this blog:

5 Websites to avoid referencing in your research papers

12 Phrases to Avoid in Your Academic Research Papers

Why APA formatting matters

How many sources do you need in a literature review?

What’s the difference between a citation and a reference?

Why “as cited in” should be avoided in academic writing

10 Great writing resources for grad students –

How to create a research paper outline: 5 great resources

Conceptual and Theoretical Frameworks for Educational Research


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This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

What makes a good research question?

November 6, 2012

This week I posed a question to my students: What makes a good research question?

As Masters of Education students, they are learning about what it means to be a researcher and building a foundation of knowledge. They came up with some great resources this week. If you are looking for answers to this question, check out these great resources:

Sarah Eaton blog leadershipSonia Ospina’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Leadership on Qualitative Research

This is a 13-page document, available free in .pdf format. Published in 2004, this text shares some of the fundamentals of qualitative research, particularly as it pertains to leadership. It is also very useful for students and researchers working in education and other social sciences. It contains an extensive bibliography that serves as a great point of departure for more exploration. Link for this resource:

Sarah Eaton blogJudith Haber’s chapter called “Research Questions, Hypotheses and Clinical Questions”

Though marked as “Sample – Not final” with a watermark on the .pdf, this is an incredible 29-page resource that includes flow charts and tables of information. It is easy to understand and written in language that most novice researchers could understand. This one quickly became a favorite because it was colorful and concise. Even though it appears to be written for students and practitioners of health research, there are many elements that may be useful to educators and social science researchers, too. Link for this resource:

Companion for Undergraduate Research

This is a website ( that outlines the characteristics of a good research question. Then it talks about each characteristic in detail. It is written in clear language and is very well organized. The page also contains links to other helpful resources on research.

Figuring out how to craft a research question can be tricky. Resources like these help to demystify the process.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

How to provide peer review feedback

June 6, 2012

There is no single correct way to conduct a peer review of a writer’s manuscript or submission to a journal. Every publication will have its own guidelines and standards. However, if you are brand new to reviewing a peer’s work here are some factors to consider:

Organization and structure

  • Does the work have a clearly articulated title?
  • Is the work organized and structured in a logical manner?
  • Does the manuscript contain explicit headings, making it easier for you to read?


  • Does the introduction articulate the point of the paper?
  • Does the introduction contain key words and phrases to help readers find the paper once it is in circulation?
  • Does the introduction clearly establish the value of the paper?

The problem / context / research question

  • Does the writer provide a clearly articulated research question or problem?
  • Is this problem situated in a historical, geographical and professional context?
  • Is this question original? If this sounds like something that has been studied to death, then it is unlikely to be original. Journal articles are meant to contribute new knowledge, fresh perspectives to the ongoing dialogue in the field.

Significance of the work

  • What rationale does the writer provide for his or her work?
  • Does the writer link their manuscript to the particular journal he or she has chosen? Many writers submit manuscripts without targeting them to a particular journal or relating their manuscript to the theme or purpose of the journal. Reviewers regularly reject such articles.
  • Why should we, as readers and professionals, care about this manuscript?

Discussion and argument

  • Does the author define and develop a cogent argument?
  • Is the argument logical?
  • Does the argument influence and persuade you as a reader?
  • How sophisticated is this argument?


  • Has the author provided clear and succinct conclusions?
  • Are the conclusions logically linked to the introduction and the argument?
  • Has the author restated the relevance of this research, in terms of already-published literature in the field?
  • Does the conclusion highlight the significance of the author’s manuscript in the larger research and professional context?
  • Has the writer provided directions for future research or recommendations for professional practice?


  • Are all the references mentioned in the body of the paper cited properly in the References section at the end of the paper? (Manuscripts with missing references are almost always automatically rejected by journals.)
  • Do the references at the end of the paper meet style guide standards, such as APA or Chicago style? (Sloppy references are also cause for rejection.)

General assessment

Is this a manuscript you think is worthy of publication? Why or why not? What changes would strengthen it in order to make it suitable for publication? Provide recommendations for revision.

Your mission is to objectively examine the work as a professional and scholarly critic. This is not an exhaustive list of criteria to consider, by any means. It is a list to give the novice manuscript reviewer a place to start.


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The “Expert Paradox”

May 28, 2012

As students and researchers in training, our mentors and professors train us to understand that our opinions do not count. Every statement or claim must be backed up by research. Students who offer an opinion without providing references are noted as making “sweeping generalizations”.

In order to be taken seriously by senior researchers, students and junior researchers in training must position themselves and humble askers of questions who claim to know nothing, except perhaps, how to ask a good question. Even that requires some training. A junior researcher who claims to be an expert is shunned by their peers and superiors.

As researchers gain experience, they learn to ask better questions. The develop research questions with laser-like focus. They refine their research skills. Their research reports become more sophisticated. Their manuscripts are accepted for publication by esteemed peer-reviewed journals.

As researchers publish more and more articles, books and reports, and present at more conferences the more their research becomes better known. As it becomes better known, it becomes more highly valued. The more their research is valued, the more the researchers are sought after as experts in the field. Unlike the junior researcher, the senior researcher who becomes known as an expert is humble enough (either by virtue or by virtue of being trained) to never refer to himself or herself as an expert. The title “expert” is conferred by others.

When someone is called an expert by others, suddenly their opinions matter again. People are not only interested in knowing what the research says, they are interested in knowing what the expert thinks, too. An expert is a trusted source and a thought leader. Experts can persuade others more easily than someone else, who is relatively unknown.

An expert’s influence is a veritable commodity when it comes to endorsements. A reference letter from an noted and widely recognized expert is much more valuable than a reference from an average professional.

It is not until someone else calls you an expert that your opinion matters. Then, it matters a great deal.

Even if your opinion hasn’t changed much since you were a junior in the field.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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