The questions I usually receive from amateur researchers or students writing an academic paper for the first time are “how can I come up with a specific topic?” and “how will I formulate some research questions for my thesis?” Indeed, having a specific topic and relevant research questions can be a defining moment for the success of your research and publication project. This determines whether your paper finds a home in a respectable journal.
Unfortunately, while trying to achieve such academic goals, complications might arise if critical steps are not taken. Some of those steps will be highly influenced by your own level of education and inspiration, but others may come from your intellectual instincts. I wrote this paper based on my own instincts in combination with my research experience while in pursuit of a Master’s degree and Ph.D.
The purpose of this paper is to assist those who wish to pursue these or similar goals. The illustrations used are related to the area of education, or more precisely language teaching, but can also apply to many others in the social sciences and humanities.
To go straight to the point, what I would do first while trying to find “a specific topic” is to write a research profile, which I complete step by step. Writing this profile takes six steps, which are as follows:
Write down some broad/general topics or subject areas (e.g. “assessment of curriculum design,” “curriculum analysis,” “error correction studies,” “evaluation of learning styles,” “program evaluation,” “study of level test,” “analysis of replacement tests” etc.). These will represent the different avenues you might take in your research, and they might relate to an issue, concept, methodology, research model, etc. that can become the focus of your thesis. At this stage it is also important to consider the researcher’s interest.
As Professor JoAnn Pavletich, who was my thesis advisor when I wrote a Master’s degree in English (specializing in American Studies) said, the researcher’s interest answers the question, “What issues seem urgent to the researcher?” She added that, “Given that we are probably talking about someone who has been in classes on the subject they are writing on, now is the time to think about the questions from those discussions and lectures that seemed important or engaging.” With significant experience advising students at the University of Houston-Downtown, Texas, U.S., Dr. Pavletich made it clear to me that, “If the writer is not engaged, the arduous work will be more difficult and the writing less persuasive.”
What should follow the discovery of a general topic based on your personal interest is an investigation of the availability of materials. Use important keywords, phrases, and specific terms in your chosen area to search for academic articles, books and other secondary resources. Google Scholar, for example, is an option for articles.
Identify a relevant, specific field of study related to this chosen (general) topic in which you expect the experts in the area have discussed the topic you are interested in. For example, in general terms, I might have “Analysis of Replacement Tests,” on the list, but “Reliability in Replacement Test” can be taken as a specific example that emerges from the general field of study.
Conduct a literature review in the pinpointed field of study. I would do this by searching and reading the existing publications of the so-called ‘break-through’ research or conceptual papers in the best journals of the subject matter (if possible), and selectively consider some of the works cited in such publications. “The primary goal of a thorough literature review is to find sufficient relevant theory and research to formulate a well-structured argument from which your particular research questions can stem” (Luse et al., 2012:146). The review is also aimed at finding out about what has been written on the subject and identifying the gap (left out by researchers) to be filled in by the originality of my work.
Refine and narrow your topic down for a more specific working title. In relation to the issue of Reliability in Replacement Tests, for example, I might come up with a specific working title such as “A Simple Solution to the Usual Deceptive Results in Placement Tests,” something that captures the essence of the whole work.
Find out what methodology you need to use. Determine whether the project should be carried out under, for instance, qualitative or quantitative study, and decide on what tools should be used to conduct the study/research. If a survey, for example, is part of the research tools, that can be started after a research profile has been written and has covered the above-listed steps and points given below (see the section on “research questions”); that is, a questionnaire is designed after knowing the stakeholders of the issue(s) being investigated. At this semi-final phase, we need to know about the methods in case it should be part of the thesis topic itself; accordingly, we might have as an example “The …: A Case Study (of …),” or “…: The Case of …”
As a summary, the table below shows each steps relationship: