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Research paper topics

What is a research paper?

In academia, a research paper is a scholarly piece of writing that involves the investigation of a topic [usually a problem] of interest with the intent of shedding light on the topic and/or solve or address an underlying research question.

Quantitative research papers follow the scientific method of inquiry meaning that data is collected and analyzed numerically through the use of rigorous scientific techniques and procedures. Research paper should yield valid and reliable findings upon which sound conclusions and recommendations can be based.

Because qualitative research papers are non-numerical in nature, they tend to be difficult to replicate and instead focus on exploring or describing phenomena rather than measuring and replicating events in a controlled laboratory setting.

Research paper examples

Term papers

A term paper is a formal piece of writing which a student is mandated to write during an academic term [or semester], as part of his or her grading. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a major written assignment in a school or college course representative of a student’s achievement during a term.”

Seminar papers

In a tertiary institution, a seminar paper is a work of original research which a post-graduate student has to present as part of his or her degree course work. It is usually a distinct course on its own that is evaluated and graded albeit it usually serves as a dress rehearsal for the thesis. On completing the paper, students are required to present a summary of it in the form of a seminar [often in PowePoint format on a projector] to a select audience of lecturers in the department after which they are scored. The scores are usually determined by the strength of the paper as well as the oral presentation. Regarding size, a seminar paper is typically larger than a term paper and smaller than a thesis.

Journal articles

A journal is a scholarly publication made up of a compilation of articles written by researchers, including professors and other subject matter experts. Journals publish the most recent research studies and usually concentrate on a specific discipline or field of study. Unlike newspapers and magazines, journals are meant for an academic or technical audience.

Undergraduate projects

An undergraduate research project is part of the coursework required to award a bachelor’s degree in any discipline. It is written during the student’s final year in the institution. The Council on Undergraduate Research defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.”

Master’s thesis

In tertiary education, a thesis is a research paper that a postgraduate student [mostly master’s degree level] is required to write before he or she successfully completes the program. It often takes months [sometimes years] to finish a thesis.  The major objective of thesis writing is for the students to demonstrate their ability to conduct research.

Doctoral dissertations

A dissertation [or doctoral thesis], is a research study that a PhD student is mandated to conduct before being awarded a doctorate degree. It usually commences after the student must have completed his or her coursework. Hence, it is the last step for the completion of a Ph.D. or other doctoral programs. Typically, a dissertation is an opportunity for students to research and present their findings in response to a pertinent question, problem, or proposition that they have chosen themselves. The aim is to scrutinize the independent research skills which the students must have internalized during their time at university.

How to find good research paper topics 

Sometimes, students undergoing diverse programmes in tertiary institutions are asked to unilaterally select topics they wish to research. This is especially the case when writing dissertations, theses, and undergraduate projects. Below are few tips on how to come up with a good research paper topic.

Identify your main area[s] of interest 

This depends to a large extent on the subject area that you’re studying. So for example if you’re in the field of Psychology, it’s only natural that your paper will be a psychology research paper. Likewise if you’re in a business related dicipline, you’re naturally going to be writing a business research paper .People tend to perform better when they are highly motivated. Interest can be a powerful motivator. As a student, you sometimes notice that you like or do well in some areas more than others. It may either be that you find such areas easier to understand and internalize or you are being taught in a way that makes you develop an interest for those topics. Interest in a course can also come naturally without being conditioned by any external stimuli. 

When choosing a research paper topic, be sure to focus on those areas that stimulate you the most. This would help motivate or inspire you to go the long haul, especially when faced with demoralizing research challenges. For example, a student who feels more interested in macroeconomics than microeconomics would, ideally, choose his on her thesis topic from the former area.

Is the potential topic researchable?

Both quantitative and qualitative research follow formally approved procedures and methods. Before selecting a research topic, it is a very good idea to keep yourself abreast with all the official research protocols in your department and faculty. This will help you determine whether or not the topic is researchable within the context of approved research procedures and methods. In the field of economics, for example, a topic is researchable if there are secondary time series data on its dependent and independent variables which can then be subjected to econometric modelling. 

Narrow down your focus

Once you have identified your area of research interest, things do not end there. You now need to meticulously study all the topics that make up that area of interest, for example, in macroeconomics. The logic is that even within your broad area of interest, there may be certain topics that appeal to you more than the rest. It is those kinds of topics that you should narrow your focus to.


It is said that two heads are better than one and no man is an island. Therefore, after brainstorming and narrowing down your search focus, it may not be a bad idea to consult other authorities in that area for advice and more ideas on how to zero in on at least three potential research topics from which the final topic will emerge. For example, a student who is most interested in macroeconomics may want to consult lecturers that specialize in that area as well as peers/colleagues who have a track record of excellence in macroeconomics. Likewise, the topic that you pick should be interesting, atleast to you, this will make it a lot more motivating to work on. Of course, finding an interesting topic is often a lot easier than actually writing an interesting research paper yourself. But it can be done.

Another good way to swift through different research topics is to make a list of topics that are ongoing and current. You could for example use Google Trends to find popular topics that are being discussed at the moment. Likewise, controversial topics can often be a good source to look into as they by their very nature have proponents on both sides, which makes for an interesting research paper. Make sure that your’re able to contribute to the field and that you’re not just picking a current event to add to a controversy. Popular topics that are currently discussed involve issues such as global warming, medical treatment, minimum wage, oil spills and criminal justice in general.

Search various sources

Before you finally settle down for potential research paper topics, be sure to search relevant sources for possible topics and/or more insight. The search can be conducted in textbooks, lecture notes, journal articles, and other scholarly materials that ew your area of interest. Another good source for this initial search is social media, and particularly those forms of social media where researchers gather.

With its vast amount of educational content and resources, the internet has also emerged as an important source of research paper topics in all fields of education. But be careful with internet sources (particularly from social media sites) because there’s a lot of junk on the internet. A lot.