Defining a research topic for your paper

This page provides information from the NTNU University Library to help you define a research topic for a paper.

Norsk versjon - Lage problemstilling for oppgave

Icon for Academic Writing: blue circle with white pencil in the midle See also "Academic Writing"

A semester paper or a project paper at the university is based on a research topic. A research topic is the research question you are going to answer in your paper. The process of finding a good research topic may seem difficult the first time. But we will provide you with helpful tools that can help you along the way.

Courses, modules and research topics #

You will encounter concepts such as courses, modules and research topics. We explain them in these terms:

  • Course refers to the subject in which you are writing the paper. Examples of subjects at NTNU are “Basic Programming” and “The Global Society”.
  • Module: Each course is divided into several modules or themes. Some of these will only be covered by the curriculum, while others are also addressed in lectures. Examples of modules from the course “Geography” are: Environmental Changes and Environmental Collaboration, Biotechnology, Environment and “Precautionary Principle” and Business Ethics. A module can also be split into several sub-modules.
  • A research topic can be both a research question and a hypothesis. You can phrase your topic as a question, but this is not a requirement. Examples of research questions and hypotheses.

Video - how to define your research topic

Video- how to make a research topic

Methods for formulating and choosing a module #

Brainstorming #

Brainstorming can be a useful tool in the search for a topic for your paper. Find a place where you can relax in peace and quiet while writing down topics from your lectures and curriculum. You might come across topics that are not included in the curriculum, but that are nevertheless relevant to your course. When choosing a topic, you should choose one that you:

  • find interesting
  • have some prior knowledge of

Mind map #

It is important to choose a topic that accommodates the size of your paper. A complex topic is too extensive for a term paper of 10-15 pages. You may need to edit the topic you have chosen and narrow it. This is the step towards defining a research topic.

A mind map can be a helpful tool for refining a topic. When using a mind map, you divide the topic into several sub-topics. Then you divide each sub-topic into another level of sub-topics. Moreover, a mind map can reveal interesting connections between the different sub-topics.

For example, suppose you are going to write a paper on the topic of genetics. Genetics is a topic of interest to physicians, technologists, scientists, social scientists, humanists and lawyers, among others.

Genetics is a very broad topic that must be narrowed. Start by writing 'Genetics' in a circle in the middle of a blank piece of paper. Write down different aspects of the topic 'genetics' in circles surrounding the main topic. To simplify our figure, we have only included three sub-topics. Can you think of any others?

Example: Mindmap

The three sub-topics, 'ethical issues', 'forensic evidence' and 'medical issues', are still too broad. You need to refine further with yet another circle.

If you find related sub-topics, connect them by drawing a new line. In our figure below, we have drawn a line between DNA privacy and DNA registries of prisoners.

Example: Extended Mindmap

Mind Manager

Students and staff at NTNU have licenses to a great mind-mapping tool: Mind Manager. Other tools for brainstorming are also available.

Choosing a research topic #

Our mind map example revealed a connection between DNA privacy and storing DNA from prisoners. Perhaps this could form the basis for an interesting topic?

Differences in legislation and the consequences of these could also be a topic of interest.

You will spend many hours working on your paper, so you are best off choosing a subject and a research topic you find interesting. After making your choice, you should evaluate whether it is realistic for you to finish your paper in time. Don't forget that you will need more time if you are not already familiar with the topic you have chosen.

Defining a research topic #

Your research topic can be based either on an observed phenomenon or on facts.

Let us say you have noticed the different legislation in Norway and the USA when it comes to using biological criminal evidence in the investigation of criminal acts. You are particularly interested in environmental crimes, such as stealing eggs, hunting and catching birds in danger of extermination. So you want to examine whether

differences in legislation within this field have any consequences for solving these crimes, and if so - what are they?

As an example, your research topic could be defined like this: Different legislation in Norway and the USA - what are the consequences of this for the police's opportunities to use biological criminal evidence in the investigation of environmental crimes?

Don't forget to give a brief account of the basic outline of the separate legislations, as well as their differences. If the paper becomes too extensive, you need to choose the most important aspects.

SpørsmålstegnTry it yourself 

Now try formulating your own research topic relevant to the paper you are going to write. Try using different kinds of question words to formulate a theme in your research topic.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • Where?
  • When?

Revising research topics #

After working on your paper for a while, you will most likely discover aspects you didn't initially think of. You should therefore be open to revising your research topic.

It is quite possible that differences in legislation do not affect the biological criminal evidence when investigating environmental crimes. If this is the case, you should consider looking at a different type of crime. Perhaps you need to change your research question or rewrite your topic.

Try rewriting this research topic: Different legislation in Norway and the USA - what are the consequences for the police's opportunities to use biological evidence when investigating environmental crimes?

Remember to give a brief account of the primary elements of the legislation, as well as an account of how these differ. You will need to select the elements you consider most relevant if the paper becomes too extensive.

What have others written about? #

See prior master’s theses on:

Search in – advanced search


  • Any: “In Subject” – write a search word

Advanced search - write subject

  • Material Type: Master thesis

Advanced search - Material Type

For an overview of master’s theses written at NTNU, search NTNU Open. NTNU Open is the institutional repository for scientific papers at NTNU.

Tick for “Student paper” and search for, e.g.:

  • Study program
  • Subject area
  • Subject
  • Your department

Contact #

Follow our Innsida channel “Nytt fra Universitetsbiblioteket” (“News from the University Library”)

9 Vedlegg
118508 Visninger