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This guide covers the basic tools for research in Psychology

Coming Up With a Topic

The best thing you can do is pick a topic that interests you - your curiosity and enthusiasm really help maintain the focus and drive to produce a great paper.  If you're having trouble thinking up ideas, here are a few suggestions:

  • Review your class material - syllabus, reading assignments, class notes and discussion.  Was there anything that intrigued you that you'd like to know more about?
  • Check the news for brand-new developments, or things that everyone's talking about.  Find the blog of your professional society, such as the American Psychological Association and see what's new. 
    • The sources you use to build your paper should be scholarly, that doesn't mean your inspiration has to be.  Find out if the popular news got anything wrong, or if the real story is more complicated than the blog post (it always is).
  • Bounce around in a database, either a general one like OneSearch Articles and More or Academic Search Premier, or a subject-specific one like PsycINFO or PsycArticles.  Try broad terms and skim the first pages of results for something that looks interesting.
  • Skim through a psychology encyclopedia or try some terms from class in Wikipedia.  Do some background  reading, follow links to other articles, check out specific people or experiments.  Background information is a great place to start and mention lots of topics in passing that make for great research ideas.
  • Talk to someone!  Your friends and classmates, your instructor's office hours, schedule an appointment with the psych librarian or walk up to the librarian at the Research Help desk - sometimes the best way to brainstorm and decide what idea sounds most interesting is to try and describe it to someone else and bounce ideas off another person out loud.



Narrowing Your Topic

If the advice to the right is confusing, try this worksheet.  It helps lay out your topic and brainstorm more specific terms.

A Right-Sized Topic

Think about your assignment, and how much information you can fit in that many pages.  Is your topic so broad you could never fit everything in?  Is your topic so narrow you're worried about finding enough to talk about?  Once you decide on a topic of interest, you may need to broaden or narrow your topic scope.  As you start your research, you should get some idea of whether your topic is too broad or too narrow from the number and relevance of the results of your searches in the databases.

Too Broad

  • anxiety
    • There will be too many results!  It will be difficult to choose papers that could all contribute to a single paper, as each one will focus on a different aspect of anxiety, a different population, or situation. A better topic may be something like travel anxiety and airports

> Ways to narrow your topic:

  • Is there a particular population you are interested in (children, men, college students, elderly, ethnic group, occupation, etc.)?
  • Choose a more specific area of the condition (mental illness -> schizophrenia, memory -> eidetic, etc.)
  • What perspective or take on the topic most interests you (care and treatment, prevention, causes, outcomes, economic factors, etc.)?
  • Try adding more terms to your search, or using the facet menu on the results page to narrow things down.

Too Narrow

  • how did the Facebook unauthorized advertising experiments impact people trying to lose weight
    • In this case, you could broaden either one of your main concepts and look at effect of targeted advertising in weight loss (not Facebook specifically) or outcomes of the Facebook unauthorized advertising experiments (not focused on weight loss specifically) - in this case, you might need to do both for effects of targeted advertising on the unaware.

> Expand your search:

  • Try related terms and synonyms: check the database thesaurus for suggested terms.
  • Researchers may use terms that are different from the ones you are using - is the term you're using the one used in class or the casual term?
  • Skim through the abstract page of papers you do find for suggested keywords and subject terms: this can often suggest a new direction or focus, too.
  • Talk to a librarian!

> Not finding enough information?

Just because you are not finding anything does not automatically mean your topic is too narrow.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is your topic so new it's unlikely that much has been published yet?  Remember that a publicity announcement or news article may appear before a scholarly article has time to be peer reviewed and published an an academic journal.
  • Which databases have you been searching?  Have you tried a subject-specific one or just Google or a general database like Academic Search Premier?  Look for database suggestions in the Articles & Databases tab of this guide, or talk with a librarian.