Focusing research topic in six steps

In previous post I have addressed different stages of the research process, that is, from the very beginning when one is formulating the research question up to the final conclusions. However, this post aims to dig into the first stages any researcher is coping at the beginning and, particularly, non-experienced researchers. Having a consistent research question is probably the most critical and challenging part. Having a good question is probably the best way to better orientate you in the subsequent stages. It works as a lighthouse that avoids disorientation in the sometimes long and confusing research process. And this is because it allows us to distinguish between relevant and non relevant data. The criterion is very simple: “you must select from all data you find just those data that support an answer to a question” (Booth et al., 2003)

What are the results of having ambiguous or abstract question? Basically, selecting data can be frustrating, so many sources, so many information and a lot of doubts of what is and not important.

So, the question is how to raise a good research question? What is more, how to raise a research question that is not merely interesting but also has wider significance, in this case, for the discipline of economics. In other words, does your question solve any problem someone, for instance, other researchers, think needs to be solved? Or, on the contrary, your question only intrigues you: “why do cats rub their faces against us? And here is when many beginners fail when formulating a research. They are unable to formulate a “big” question but with a “mental itch” (Op cit.) that only one researcher feels the need to scratch.

To that end, you must follow the following process: identify your interest-find a topic-research problem:

  1. Identifying your research interest.

Start by listing two or three interests that you´d like to explore. Interest means something that is important for you, so that you would like to know better. A research interest is something that arouses our curiosity. Sometimes without really knowing why and sometimes because they are linked to those categories that define us as person: the place you are from or you live, your hobbies, your family, your gender, nationality, your aspirations in life etc. A research interest is something that arouses our curiosity, something.

2. From an interest to a topic.

Identifying interest is seldom a problem faced by researchers, not even beginners. Most of the people have plenty of interests to pursue. However, the first challenge is often to locate a good research topic among all interests. To make it clear: a research topic is basically an interest enough focused for you to become an expert on it or, at least, to make you know much about it than you do now. Ideally, you should go for what interests you most. As suggested by Booth et al (2003:41) “nothing contributes to the quality of your work more than your commitment to it. Think in previous subjects throughout your graduate. Is there any subject where your grades have pointed out? Which one have you enjoyed most? Have you ever performed a remarkable work on a specific discipline or academic area? You might also try to identify an interest based on work you are doing or will do in a different course. Finally, do not hesitate to discuss your ideas with someone else. Get rid of your fears and shame and talk friends and classmates. It will be helpful to shape your idea and make it feasible.

If you are still stuck, you can find help on the Internet or Faculty library. The internet may seem the easiest way, but that can be also frustrating due to the overwhelming amount of information, especially if you have entire freedom to choose the topic. You should start by visiting your library or the social profile of some of your professors. For instance, you can join for free some academic network as ResearchGate and look at the work made by some of them. Starting by checking out the work of faculty member allow you to contact them directly in case you want to ask specific questions or material. That may also contribute to a better knowledge transference between professors and students and, hence, creating a more active and vibrant local intellectual life.

If you have already an idea for a topic you can search for relevant literature by keywords. Imagine you are interested in local economic development. If you scan this term on the internet, you will find thousands of references. Don´t read randomly; start with entries in a general encyclopaedia as Wikipedia. The fact you topic has some entries is a good sign. It means that you are not the only one working on this topic. Have a look to the main literature references given in the encyclopaedia entry in order for you to identify the main authors. Then you can look at entries in a more specialized search engine. For instance, Google Scholar. Here the search is focused on academic papers, excluding those performed in industry. Finally, check out specialized journals. Once again, if your topic is local economic development, then look for a journal specialized on this area. Read a reasonable amount of articles or papers related to your specific topic. Do not hesitate to take a single paper as reference. What is more, it is highly recommendable to use one paper as a guide for your own research. Your aim could perfectly be reproducing the same study but adding new elements and taking care of not committing plagiarism.

  1. From a broad topic to a focused one.

At this point, you risk settling on a topic so broad that could perfectly be a heading in a encyclopaedia: “local economic development”, “regional development”. A topic is usually too broad if you can state it in four or five words: “Local development problems in Poland”.

You can narrow this topic by adding words and phrases, but of a special kind: description, contribution, analysis, etc. All of them are derived from verbs expressing actions or relationships: to describe, to contribute, to analyse. Without such words, your topic is a static thing. But when you use nouns derived from verbs, you move your topic a step closer to a claim that your readers might find significant.

Note what happens when these topics become statements.

TOPIC                                                                                                                 CLAIM

Economic development

Poland has experienced one of the most notable economic growths in Europe in the last decade


  1. From a focused topic to questions.

A very common mistake among beginners is rushing from a topic to the “data dump”. Having a promising topic does not mean to have done all we need to get started with data collection. “Poland economic growth since joining European Union” is, indeed, a good topic. You can accumulate economic data on this topic, the evolution of the different indicators and differences between regions. This might be enough to have a good grade at high school, because you show that you can focus on a topic, find data on it, and assemble those data into a report. This is not a small achievement after all. However, in any advance course, as this at the university, such report falls short because it offers only random bits of information. Readers of significant report do not only want information. As suggested by Booth et al. (2003), they also want “answer to question worth asking”. To be fair, those who are fascinated with a particular topic frequently feel like any information is worth reading for its own sake. Advance researchers, however, do not report data for their own sake, but to support the answer to a question that they and their readers think is worth asking.

The best form to identify what you do not know about a topic is to barrage it with questions. First of all, the most predictable questions within you field, usually journalistic questions like headed by interrogative particles as who, what, when and where. They usually raise way to descriptive reports, that is, they may ask only about matters of settled fact. Then you can focus on how and why headed questions. They are more likely to invite deeper research and lead to more interesting answers.

Finally you can ask four kinds of analytical questions:

  1. About composition: how is the topic part of a larger system? For instance, what factors explain the better economic growth performance in Poland in comparison to other new European Union members? What industries have contributed most to such growth? Does the economic growth mean a loss of local embeddings?
  2. About the history: how the growth developed since 2005? Is it possible to identify different stages? How different industries have developed since 2005? How economic growth has affected demography and immigration?
  3. Categorization: Identify its characteristics and the categories that include it: How the economic growths vary from one region to another? How does it from one industry to another?

Once you have a clear question you may stop brainstorming. The most important aim is to identify a question that really arouses your intense curiosity. Discuss your idea with someone. It will be helpful to shape your idea and make it feasible. Pose your question in a network as Research Gate to test others opinion. Having no answer might be an indicator of either the question is not correctly formulated, or the question has no significance for your field.

  1. From a merely interesting question to its wider significance.

Once you have a question that grabs your interest, you must pose a tougher question: why should this question also grab my readers? What makes it worth asking? It is not easy to guess what will eventually interest your readers. Booth et al. Suggest working toward an answer in three steps:

  1. Describe your topic in a sentence as specific as you can make it:

“I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _____________________

  1. Add to that sentence and indirect question that specifies something that you do not know or understand about your topic but want to:

“I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _____________________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how________________________________

I you success to compose a good sentence at this point, you are moving yourself beyond the kind of aimless collection and reporting of data that afflicts too much research.

  1. Motivate your question. This is probably the most challenging step. But this step indicates whether your question is not just interesting to you but possibly significant to others. To do that, add another indirect question, a bigger and more general one that explains why you are asking your first question. Introduce this second implied question with in order to help my reader understand how, why, or whether:

“I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _____________________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how________________________________in order to help reader to understand how, why, or whether________________________

If that larger question touches issues important for your field and/or are current and controversial topics nowadays, then you have motives to consider that your readers should care about its answer to the question you are posing.

Experienced researchers are able to flesh out this whole process even before they start the data collection, basically because they are working on a well-known question, i.e. a widely investigated problem that others in their field are already interested in. Actually, advanced researchers often begin their research with questions that others have asked before but not answered thoroughly or maybe even correctly. Hence, your research question could be the result of not only the exploration of new significant topics, but just the continuation of the work started by other researchers.

Finally, the truth is that many researchers, including advanced ones, find that they can´t flesh out these steps until they´re nearly finished. In other words, many researchers write up the results without having thought through these steps at all. It means that at the beginning of the project you may not be able to get past these three steps, but it is important you regularly reflect on them throughout the whole research project. Then you will know where you are and where you still have to go.

To summarize, your aim is to explain:

  1. What you are writing about-your topic: I am studying…
  2. What do don´t know about it- your question: because I want to find out…
  3. Why you want your reader to know about it-your rationale: in order to help my reader understand better…

6. From questions to problems.

Having a good question is usually a synonymous of addressing a research problem. But what a research problem really is. We first should distinguish between practical problems and research problems. Everyday research usually begins with solving practical problems that has just landed on you, a problem that left unresolved, means trouble. We all have this kind of problems and we all are often able to solve or, at least, we can figure out the way it may be solved. However, whenever the solution of such problem is not obvious, (i.e. when you ask yourself questions that you can´t answer), then you need to solve first a problem of another kind, a research problem defined by what you do not know or understand and; so that then you can address the practical problem.

So the process of addressing a practical problem is familiar for everyone:

PRACTICAL QUESTION: My brakes have started screeching?

RESEARCH QUESTION: Where can I get them fixed right away?

RESEARCH PROBLEM: Find the yellow pages and look up closest brake shop.

RESEARCH ANSWER: The Car shoppe, 1401 East 55th Street.

APPLICATION: Call to see when they can fix them.

Graphically, the relationship between practical and research problems looks like this:

** It is very important distinguish between Practical problems and research problems.

Although solving a practical problem usually requires that we solve a research problem as well, there are differences between them:

– A practical problem is caused by some condition in the world, from e-mail spam to terrorism, that makes us unhappy because it costs us time, money, respect, security, pain, even our lives. You solve a practical problem by doing something that changes the world by eliminating the causes that lead to its costs, or by encouraging others to do so.

– A research problem is motivated not by palpable unhappiness, but by incomplete knowledge or flawed understanding. You solve it not by changing the world but by understanding it better.

At this point you may have notice that the term problem has a special meaning in the world of research. In our everyday world, a practical problem is something we try to avoid. But in the academic world, a research problem is something we eagerly seek out, even inventing one, if we have to.

** Distinguishing “Pure” and “Applied” Research.

Having a practical problem is not necessary the point of departure when formulating a research problem. In other words, you can try to solve a research problem without having a practical problem or, at least, not apparently. Hence you want to address a research problem due to the interest of a community of researchers. This research is called pure. But when the research is rooted in a practical problem, that is, it is the practical problem that encourage to do a research, then we call this applied research. You can tell whether a research problem is pure or applied by looking at the last of the three steps in defining your project. Does it refer to knowing or doing?


“I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _____________________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how________________________________in order to understand how, why, or whether________________________


“I am trying to learn about (working on, studying) _____________________ because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how________________________________so that policy makers can use data to implement new employment projects________________________

Is it useful pure research?

Well, the truth is that most research projects in the humanities and many in the natural and social sciences have no direct application to daily life. In fact, as the word pure suggests, many researchers value pure research more highly than they do applied. They believe that the pursuit of knowledge “for its own sake” reflects humanity´s highest calling-to know more and understand better, not for the sake of money or power, but for the good that understanding itself brings. What is more, the fact one project has no practical application usually means that the application is not immediately. But the truth is that many pure research results end up having important impact on society. For instance, the recent discovery of gravitational waves has a priori no application. However, it is well known that this will impact the way we understand universe and humanity, as well as other discoveries did in the past.

Finally, a typical beginner´s mistake is getting not content with having no significant practical problem so they try to force their project into the practical domain. That´s usually a mistake because no one can solve the world´s great problem in a five- or even a fifty-page paper. But a good researchers might help us understand those problems better, which get us closer to the solution.


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