By Maura Deering
Choosing a research topic for your dissertation, thesis, or class project can be daunting. Even if you have a topic in mind, it can be difficult and time-consuming to decide on a topic to explore. We asked psychology professors for their tips on how and when to approach selecting a research topic, where to find credible source material, and how to stay organized during the research process. This guide also includes resources to help navigate the volume of material available online.
Recommendations for Psychology Students Writing a Research Paper
1. Select a topic that has meaning for you.
Whether you hope to work with a specific patient population or specialty, consider your reasons for studying psychology and your future goals when selecting a research topic. Matt Glowiak, therapist, professor, and mental and behavioral health writer for Choosing Therapy, advises that this helps avoid burnout.
"By selecting a topic that personally resonates, one may be more motivated to push through some of the more challenging aspects of the research process," says Glowiak. "Although the initial research question may change upon further consideration, the topic will still remain one that is meaningful."
To discover which topics spark your interest, Dr. Alan Chu, an assistant professor and chair of the sports, exercise, and performance psychology program at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay, suggests perusing your textbooks for the chapters and topics that interest you most.
2. Start early and allow enough time to choose your topic.
In addition to reviewing your textbooks for initial topic ideas, you will need to narrow it down to one, plus the specific area within that topic. Allow yourself the time to perform some cursory research on your chosen topic, as well. Chu suggests reading Mindset, Grit, or Psychology Today to find references to peer-reviewed articles in your subject area.
For efficiency, Chu advises that "we don't always have to read word for word." He goes on to say that the most important article sections to focus on are the abstract and the first paragraph and last section of the discussion.
Glowiak says that choosing a topic discussed in class can also provide a solid foundation for a research project. "As a student, I saved every homework assignment I wrote along with the feedback."
3. Choose your sources wisely.
According to Glowiak, a dissertation requires dozens of resources, while a paper totaling 10-15 pages needs 15-20 substantive sources. "The number of sources necessary for research depends on the type of research (e.g., qualitative, quantitative, mixed study) as well as the topic itself." Chu recommends that 8-10 citations would be the minimum number for most student research projects.
Chu suggests starting with a search of recently peer-reviewed articles or meta-analysis articles, which "summarize all of the previous findings and allow students to see all related references in one place." He also advises limiting the search to articles written within the past five years and reading the most recent evidence first. Always reference the original sources in your citations, and keep in mind that publications like Psychology Today count among the best sources for current topics, like COVID-19, because researchers can update them sooner than books and journal articles.
4. Keep it simple.
"As a doctoral student, I was reminded that the best dissertation is a done dissertation," says Glowiak. Especially in the early years of your education, you can look ahead to many opportunities to refine your research interests and topics. "Remember that you may always conduct more advanced research later," advises Glowiak. He also reminds students that the research they do now functions as a springboard for their future professional work. "With more experience, knowledge, and resources at one's disposal, the sky becomes the limit insofar as advancing the research further."
Chu, for instance, has focused his research on the psychosocial aspects of sports, physical education, and exercise. Recently, however, his work has zeroed in on aspects of motivation in youth athletes. Choosing a research topic for your student projects may constitute the first step in your eventual career path.
5. Stay organized.
Keeping records of your research process and potential topics can save a lot of time and cut down on backtracking. Chu suggests highlighting key sections of articles and saving them in Google Drive or on another cloud storage site. Keeping a list of the search terms used and the websites you visited can help you quickly access information later on and easily find your sources for citations. In addition, tracking the information you highlight and the article topics that draw you in can help you narrow down your research topic.
Chu suggests that students create a folder for each topic on their Google Drive (or other cloud storage). "Even better," he says, "they can store those articles within Mendeley" -- free downloadable software that stores articles, searches for articles using keywords, and automatically imports citations in the correct American Psychological Association (APA) style.
6. Keep an open mind.
Some students decide on their area of interest early in the educational process or even while contemplating which school to attend. During your academic journey, don't be afraid to change your mind on what interests you. Glowiak, for example, began his counseling career helping patients with alcohol and substance abuse, but wrote his doctoral thesis on the impact of the internet on K-8 learning and social development.
"Students should locate sources that allow them to dig into the scientific literature on several topics," Chu says. He also advises that, while Google Scholar makes it easy to find many different articles, content quality may not be the best. Even if students should not use them for formal citations, Google Scholar can provide a source of inspiration for research topics.
Additional Resources for Psychology Students
- American Psychological Association The APA features a searchable collection of free, recently-published journal articles in multiple subdisciplines.
- ProQuest Students can access the ProQuest Central research database, which includes dissertations, journals, news sources, and working papers.
- PsycINFO This APA bibliographic database, available through university libraries, includes journal articles, books, and dissertation abstracts.
- ScimagoJR On this website, researchers can verify the legitimacy of articles and the quality of various journals.