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Sociology 191: Senior Capstone (Whitt)

Higher Education in the U.S.

Step 1 - Your Research Question

Coming up with a research question can be challenging, but it's all part of the research process. In some cases, your instructor may give you a topic or in other cases, you may join a lab that is already working on a project with a defined research question, but if you are on your own, this page will give you some guidance.

Part of coming up with a manageable research question is also knowing what your "information need" is. In other words, what kinds of sources do you need to help you answer your question. See the subpage "Article Types" for more info.

Tip: Remember that the research process is non-linear and sometimes messy. You will need to search for and read (or at least skim) some information sources to know if your research question is going to be manageable.  Skip to step 4 for some reading tips!

PIcking Your Topic IS Research (Video Tutorial)

North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries, 3:10

Consider What is Available and What is your Information Need

After choosing a topic, you should also consider what information might be available. Consider the effect that time has on the publishing "information life cycle" (see the video, below), and whether information that you want would have been published already. If so, consider also who would be interested in collecting and publishing this information. What types of sources do you need (popular or scholarly, both?; primary, secondary, or tertiary sources?).

If you get stuck, know that you always can reach out to your librarians via 24/7 chat or any of the other options at the link below:

The Information Life Cycle (UNLV Video Tutorial)

Note: to see closed captioning, click grayed-out CC box and then select English.

Brainstorming Keywords (Infographic)


  • Search exact phrases by using quotation marks
  • Use broader or narrower terms and related words as synonyms

Step 1 - Pause to Reflect

Step 1, Your Research Question, not only requires that you come up with a research questionNoun project icon showing a thought process from question to idea or topic that is narrow enough to explore for an undergraduate research paper, but it also requires that you consider what type of information you will need to find in order to answer your research question.

  1. Is your topic so large you could write a whole book or PhD dissertation on it? If so, you should try to narrow your topic down to something manageable within the time you have and the number of pages or words your instructor is requiring. Tips for narrowing your search can be found in step 3.
  2. Is your topic so specific that you can't find information about it? Go to step 3 to learn how to search more strategically and broaden your search out a bit.
  3. Do you need some basic facts, dates, or names of historical people or specific theories? If so, go on to step 2: Find Background Information.