Selecting a Research Topic (Adapted from the WSU Stewart Library Website

Selecting a Research Topic (Adapted from the WSU Stewart Library Website

Selecting a Research Question

The following exercise helps you to learn how to define and select a research question. Follow the steps below to help you. Submit your answers to this exercise for class participation credit.

Step 1: Brainstorm to get research topic ideas

  • Choose a topic that interests you. Use the following questions to help you generate topic ideas.
  • Have you ever wondered if theories in Human Resources/Organizational Behavior(HR/OB) could explain the behaviour of individuals caught up in a recent public scandal, or how it affects the lives of people in your favorite sport/industry?
  • Was there a memorable event/issue you experienced in the workplace that HR/OB could help you understand?
  • Is there an aspect of another courseyou are interested in learning more about?
  • Read summaries of research in journals, magazines, or newspapers articles
  • Examples of academic journal articles that summarize current research:
  • The Academy of Management Perspective(previously Academy of Management Executive). For a tutorial on how to find research summaries in the Academy of Management Perspective click below or see accompanying handout
  • Abstracts of the Journal of Organizational Behaviour
  • What’s new in Journals (website by The Economist)
  • Check out these sections in these newspaper websites:
  • The Business Section in
  • The Financial Page in “Goings on about Town”
  • The professor’s collection of articles from

Practice Exercise:

Do your preliminary research and write down any words or phrases that may be of interest to you.

(Keep these words in mind: Could any of these be the basis for a more focused topic?)

Step 2: Focus in on your topic

  • Keep it manageable. A topic will be very difficult to research if it is too broad, or too narrow. One way to narrow a broad topic such as "communication" is to limityour topic. Here are examples of common ways to limit:

Ways to limit a topic / Example:
Geographic region / Do the working conditions in Canada differ from other countries?
Culture / Does cultural background influence an individual’s preferred mode of communication?
Time frame / Why have levels of job satisfaction changed in the last 10 years?
Population group / Does the gender of professors have an impact on student evaluations?

Practice Exercise A:

Identify three narrower aspects of the following broad topics. In other words, what are three areas you could investigate that fit into these very broad topics?

  • Stress
  • Motivation
  • Conflict

Step 2 (continued): Focus in on your topic

  • Remember that a topic will be more difficult to research if it is too narrow:

Narrowing factors: / Example: / Reason it is too narrow
Locally confined / What is the preferred style of communication used by UTSC students? / May only be covered in the UTSC newspaper
Too Recent / How have job satisfaction levels changed in the last year? / Only recent popular magazine articles will have this information
Broadly interdisciplinary / How does the government influence businesses in Western Canada? / Too much superficial information
Popular / How does Johnny Depp deal with the stress of his busy schedule? / Only popular magazine articles will have information on this

Practice Exercise B:

Identify a broader topic that would cover the following narrow topics. In other words, how could you expand these topics to find more information?

  • Goal-setting appraisal systems at PricewaterhouseCoopers
  • Leadership style of Prime Minister Harper
  • Employee satisfaction at Wal-Mart

Step 3: Make a list of useful keywords

  • Keep track of the words that are used to describe your topic.
  • Look for words that best describe your topic.
  • These words will be found in the encyclopedia articles and other reading done while selecting your topic.
  • Find synonyms, broader and narrower terms for each keyword you find in order to expand your search capabilities
  • Keep a list of these words to use as keywords later as you search in catalogs and other online databases

Practice Exercise:

Imagine that you have been assigned the following topics. Think of 5 keywords you might use to look for information on each.

  • Do men and women have different preferred styles of communication?
  • In what ways can students manage their time better?
  • When are certain motivational tactics more effective than others?

Step 4: Be flexible

  • It is common to modify your topic during the research process. You can never be sure of what you may find. You may find too much and need to narrow your focus, or too little and need to broaden your focus. This is a normal part of the research process. When researching, you may not wish to change your topic, but you may decide that some other aspect of the topic is more interesting or manageable.
  • Keep in mind the assigned length of the research paper, project, bibliography or other research assignment. Be aware of the depth of coverage needed and the due date. These important factors may help you decide how much and when you will modify your topic.

Step 5: Define your topic as a focused research question

  • You will often begin with a word, develop a more focused interest in an aspect of something relating to that word, and then begin to have questions about the topic.

For example:

  • Ideas = Wages and Gender
  • Research Question = Is there a wage gap between men and women?
  • Focused Research Question = Do women CEOs make as much as their male counterparts?

Practice Exercise:

Write research questions and focused research questions on the following sets of ideas:

  • Job control and Stress levels
  • Networking and Career Outcomes
  • Job Satisfaction and Organizational Commitment

Step 6: Research and read more about your topic

  • Use the key words you have gathered to research in the library catalog, article databases and Internet search engines.
    Find more information to help answer your research question.
  • You will need to do some research and reading before you select your final topic. Can you find enough information to answer your research question? Remember, selecting a topic is an important and complex part of the research process.

Step 7: Formulate a hypothesis

  • Write your topic as a hypothesis. This may be the answer to your research question and/or a way to clearly state the purpose of your research.Your hypothesis will usually be one or two sentences that states precisely what is to be answered about your topic.
  • The development of a hypothesis assumes there is sufficient empirical evidence for and against it
  • For example, a hypothesis could be“Women CEOs do not make as much as their male counterparts”

Practice Exercise:

Write hypotheses for the following research questions:

  • Is there one leadership style most effective the sales industry?
  • How does the diversity of a group impact its performance?
  • In what way can absenteeism be reduced?

Now, all you have to do is take these steps and apply them to your own papers! Good luck!

If you started to brainstorm withthis idea... / Your focused research question might be... / Your hypothesis may be ... / Your keywords might include ...
Student Evaluations / Does the gender of professors have an impact on student evaluations? / Students have a tendency to grade female professors more favorably then their male counterparts. / Gender, professor, student, evaluations, ratings…
Demographics and Hockey / Does demographic and skill factors impact the salaries of hockey players? / More experienced players have higher salaries, but only when they possess certain skills. / Demographics, abilities, skills traits, hockey, sports, salary, wages…
Absenteeism / What factors cause absenteeism? / An individual’s personality can predict whether they are more likely to be absent / Absenteeism, work absences, attendance, causes, factors…
Career Commitment / Does career commitment differ between medical and law students? / Medical students are more committed to their careers than lawyers. / Doctor, physician, lawyer, commitment, career…
Co-op graduates / Are management co-op students likely to be successful and satisfied with their careers? / Co-op students are more likely to be successful and satisfied with their careers than regular students. / Co-operative education, student, satisfaction, happiness, success, outcomes…
Women in Business / Do women still make less than their male counterparts in the business world? / The wage gap between males and females in the business world has been closing, but still exists. / Male, female, gender, wages, salary, earnings…

Adapted from the WSU Stewart Library Website - by A. Wilson