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Research skills: finding and evaluating information for essays and theses: Identifying a subject for an assigment or research area

This guide gives an outline of the key skills needed for researching a subject, from identifying and developing a topic to finding and evaluating information for essays and theses. It also includes advice on writing your essay, assignment or thesis.

Selecting a research topic for an essay or thesis

For undergraduate courses when an essay is assigned on a specific topic then your focus will be on the next stage of the research process: Finding Information. However, there will normally be a number of essays or assignments throughout the year where you can select your own topic, or at least you will have a choice on which aspect of a broad subject to focus on.

For a major final year undergraduate thesis or a postgraduate thesis you will be the one deciding which topic, or aspect of research, to focus on. This guide is designed to help you and offer advice and support with this important and sometimes difficult task.

Whether it is a once-off essay as part of your course work, or a more substantial piece of work such as a final year assignment, or even a thesis, the basic principles of identifying and selecting a subject or topic are the same.

Theses - issues to consider

Useful advice from Lund Research Ltd on finding a dissertation topic can be found here

'The final section of many academic journals, whether entitled Future Research, Research Limitations, or something similar, is arguably the quickest and easiest way to find a possible dissertation topic at the undergraduate and Master's level' according to Lund Research. Their web page entitled Our top tip for finding a dissertation topic explains this in detail and outlines 6 reasons why this can be a rich source to explore for those researching a potential Masters or Phd thesis topic.

  •    The suggestions made are generally considered reasonable
  •    You can more easily identify why your research would be significant
  •    The journal article provides a platform for your research plan
  •    You can get an insight into the potential achievability of your topic
  •    Your dissertation topic is more likely to be current and add to the literature
  •    The logic of your dissertation topic choice is more difficult to criticise and your topic is more likely to be accepted

Choosing and developing a subject for your essay or thesis

It is important to consider a  number of points when choosing a suitable topic:

Choose a topic or subject that interests you. You will be spending a lot of time researching or working on your assignment (and in particular if you are doing a thesis).

Do some preliminary searching. You can search in your library catalogue and in the library's online resources to begin to assess the suitability of your topic. More information on searching can be found here.   

Make sure the topic you choose is not too broad or too narrow. You want to have enough information so that you can easily access a reasonable amount of source material on the topic, but not too much whereby you are inundated with material and don't know where to start. These resources offer advice on broadening or narrowing your topic.