Human Resources home > Getting Started and Choosing a Topic
Research is a process which begins with an information need and ends once the need is met and information is presented. This guide walks you through the research process, from finding background information and current research articles, to using the Internet for research, to evaluating and citing your sources.
|Always document each step of your research! When you find a book, be sure to write down the author, title, place and date of publication. You'll need this information to cite the book later. If you find magazine or journal articles in a database, write down that citation information as well -- see the section on citing online articles for more information. It may also be helpful to write down the name of the database(s) you were using, in case you need to revisit a search later.|
Whether you're writing a paper for a class or looking for legal cases which address a specific HR function, you need to have a clear understanding of the assignment and what is expected of you. Remember that your instructor is always your best resource if you have questions about your assignment, or about the kinds of sources you're expected to use. To help you get started, begin by asking yourself the questions listed below. Your answers will set the direction for your next steps.
- What type of information do I need? (statistics, background, survey data...)
- How much information do I need? (two good sources for a brief speech, a thorough literature review for my thesis...)
- How soon do I need it? (Is the paper due tomorrow or at the end of the term?)
- Where do I expect to find the information? (books, articles, the Web, I have no idea...)
- How will I present the information? (in a research paper, speech, class presentation...)
Different people may have different ideas about what makes a good topic. Your instructor may want you to tackle a research area currently in the news. You may prefer to explore historical events. In general, a good topic may address these practical issues:
- Does it fit the requirements for the paper or assignment? It's always wise to
get your instructor's approval before you spend a lot of time on something that won't
- Are there enough resources available on the topic? This question especially applies to projects requiring library research. Do a quick check of the following to determine if you will have enough material to with which to work:
- Is it an important and worthwhile topic? This factor is very important at the senior and graduate level where your thesis may be part of a larger research project in the department.
- Are you interested in the topic? If you have a choice, find a subject that interests you. It's hard to get motivated if you don't care about what you are doing. Think about choosing a topic that will help you gain expertise in an area that may be useful in your future.
Many people have trouble taking a broad topic and narrowing it down to something more manageable. One of our favorite techniques for fine-tuning a topic is to use the formula traditionally employed by newspaper reporters--Who?-What?-Where?-When?-Why?
Who is involved?A particular age group, occupation, ethnic group, men, women, etc. For example, if you are interested in writing about leadership, you might focus on either executives or middle managers.
What is the problem?What is the issue facing the "who" in your topic--violence, health concerns, job and economic trends, family issues? You may find it helpful to state your topic as a question. For example, if you are interested in finding out about violence in the workplace, you might ask: "Are there preventive measures that can be taken by supervisor to prevent violence on the job?"
Where is this happening?A specific country, province, city, rural vs. urban environment, physical environment, etc. For example, you could focus on economic development in the former Soviet republics or health care for workers in rural America.
When is this happening?Is this a current issue or an historical event? Will you want to discuss the historical development of a current problem?
Why is this happening?/Why is this a problem?You may want to focus on the suggested causes of the problem or issue you are researching. You may also want to assert the importance of this problem by outlining its historical or current ramifications. For some projects, you may want to persuade your instructor or class that they should care about the issue.
Broadening a Topic
What if you find that your topic seems too narrow? You can use the same technique as discussed above to find ways to broaden your scope. For example, an issue facing workers in a steel mill may be similar to issues in other manufacturing sectors of the economy. A current issue may have parallels to historical events. A problem confronting child laborers in south Texas could be compared or contrasted with the experience of children in Mexico. To broaden a topic, think of "analogous" or similar elements that could be added to your discussion.