Identify your topic

Video Source: "PIL InfoLit Dialog, No. 3: Frustrations"

If you're frustrated with getting started doing research, then you are certainly not alone. Doing research in the digital age isn’t as easy as it would seem.

Research shows that students’ top frustrations include experiencing information overload, having too much irrelevant information that obscures what’s needed, and just getting started on a research assignment.

Just begin. You can't start your research until you select a topic to explore, and getting started can be surprisingly difficult. Here is our advice: JUST BEGIN. Pick something that both interests you and relates to the course, and start exploring! You don't have to commit to this topic right away. Your entire assignment will feel much more controllable once you get off the bench and into the game.

Minimum requirements. As you think about which topics you'd like to explore, make sure you understand the parameters of your assignment. Read and re-read it. What does your professor expect? Page length? Number of sources? Type of sources? Do you need statistics or data? What about primary sources? Will you present results in written or oral form? Is your paper or presentation formal or informal? Individual work or group work?

Potential topics. Browse your syllabus to find topics that fit the scope of your course. If you have a textbook, scan the table of contents and index. For some classes, tuning in to current news sources might generate ideas. Something in your personal history may lead you to a topic, whether it's an idea that was planted in another class, something related to your home, or something you've just always been curious about.

The Goldilocks dilemma. It can be challenging to find a topic that is not too big (save it for your senior thesis or even a master's degree thesis) or too small (you won't have enough to say, or you won't have room for original insights). Understanding when a topic is right-sized is something that takes practice. You'll know the feeling when you hit it, and then you can strive to repeat that perfect balance. Also, it can help to get feedback from others. Don't hesitate to ask your professor, a librarian, or a trusted friend if your topic is "right-sized" yet.

Assignment Calculator

Make a plan. Our assignment calculator can generate a suggested timeline for your work, in order to help keep you on track. You can change the plan as needed once you're embedded in your project. At the beginning, though, it helps to make a plan - even if you have little confidence in your topic yet.

It's who you know. If you're having trouble getting started, don't hesitate to take advantage of various services on campus. You can schedule a research appointment with a reference librarian to talk about your research (no matter how far along you are - or aren't!). If you want more help with your writing, the Writing Center can help. In many subject areas, peer learning associates are available via the Peer Learning Center. All of these services are supported with your tuition dollars, so please use them if they are helpful to you!