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How to Start Your Research | Choose a Topic

Tips and tools for starting your research and searching for information in library databases and catalogs.

Your Librarian

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Amanda Walch
Raugust Library, Reference & Instruction Office
701-252-3467 ext. 5441

In This Section

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Start With What You Know

What are you curious about?

  • What do you still have questions about?
  • This might seem obvious, but your topic should interest you!

How can you contribute to the conversation?

  • Are there gaps in existing research?
  • Can you approach a topic from a new angle or perspective?


Picking a topic is research, too!

This video (3 minutes) describes the process of choosing and testing out a topic. See more tips below the video, too!

Video posted on YouTube by North Carolina State University Libraries under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA US license.

Do Some Background Reading

Reference sources are a great place to start when you're trying to choose or narrow a topic.

They'll help you learn the language of the topic you're interested in, and help you gather:

  • basic facts or established information on your topic
  • key concepts, terms, and people 
  • related topics and, often, suggested resources for learning more


Try these general reference sources to get started, and check out our Research Guides for subject-specific reference works.

magnifying class iconTIP:

A reference source summarizes key facts, important figures, and major concepts of a topic and provides useful background information. Reference sources include dictionaries and encyclopedias and can be in print or online.

Topic vs. Thesis vs. Research Question

What's the difference between a topic, a thesis, and a research question?




Research Question

Your topic is the general subject area you're researching. Your topic will be broader than your guiding research questions and your thesis or argument, and will help you determine where to search, and what kinds of information you need in order to answer your questions. Your professor might give you topics to choose from, or you might be able to choose your own. Your thesis is the specific argument you are making in answer to your research question(s) and about your topic. You might start your research without a clear thesis in mind, and that's okay! As you dig into your sources and begin to find answers to your research questions, your thesis will develop. Your research questions are the questions you have about your topic that guide your searching. You'll probably do some research before you finalize these guiding questions, and then you'll try to answer your questions through more research. It's okay to have more than one question, and it's okay for these questions to change over the course of your research!