A research topic is a subject that you are interested in when conducting a study. A well-defined research topic is an essential starting point for every project.

You can choose a topic based on various types of information, experiences or requirements. Such sources may include issues:

  • raised in the literature you have read or faced in your practice
  • of personal interest to you
  • that are important in the field of your work
  • presented by a funder who is looking to commission a project

The following steps can guide you to find a research topic (based on Harper & Thompson, 2011).

Step 1: Establish your overall area of interest. For example, let’s say your overall interest is exploring mental health among refugees. Write down the reasons for your interest.

Step 2: Explore the theme. Start by doing some introductory reading and exploration of the larger theme and find out what research has been done on this theme.

Step 3: Narrow your focus. You may start with two or three topics that interest you. For example, suicidal ideation among adolescents in refugee camps in Turkey, post-traumatic stress symptoms suffered by refugees living in transitional housing, or coping mechanisms among refugee mothers suffering from depression in Birmingham. Ask yourself:

  • Will the topic sustain my interest over the months to come?
  • Is there any existing literature within which I can locate my work?
  • Is the topic one I can research within the time and resources available?

Step 4: You can further narrow the focus of your research interest by deciding on the research method you would like to use to collect your data. For example, if you have decided to investigate coping mechanisms among refugee mothers suffering from depression in Birmingham, you can choose a number of methods to collect relevant data:

  • interviews with refugee mothers suffering from depression in Birmingham to understand their experience and coping mechanisms
  • evaluation of the support provided across different services to these mothers suffering from depression in Birmingham to help them cope
  • a literature-based study to explore the data related to different coping mechanisms in other refugee settings, and their applicability within the context of Birmingham
  • interviews with families and community members to tease out the role of community in supporting refugee mothers suffering from depression in Birmingham

In sum: A well-defined topic is an essential starting point for every research project. Select a topic in which you are interested, one that is focused and can be addressed in an appropriate manner within the time and resource constraints of the project.

(Author: Nancy Tamimi)

What is it?

Videos:

How to choose a GOOD research topic: Research papers for beginners by SmartStudent (2022)

This video gives a step-by-step introduction to how to find a research topic. The different steps are illustrated with examples from business and management. While the examples don’t focus on mental health, they still allow you to understand how to generate a research topic.

(Academic reference: SmartStudent (2022, February 28). How to choose a GOOD research topic: Research papers for beginners [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zxMsZsNw47U)

Books:

Qualitative research methods in mental health and psychotherapy: A guide for students and practitioners by David Harper and Andrew Thomson (2011)

This book gives an overview of qualitative research methods most commonly used in the mental health and psychotherapy arena. The authors provide chapter-by-chapter guidance on conducting a qualitative study from across a range of approaches. They also offer guidance on how to review and appraise existing qualitative literature, how to choose the most appropriate method, and how to consider ethical issues.

(Academic reference: Harper, D., & Thompson, A. R. (Eds.). (2011). Qualitative research methods in mental health and psychotherapy: A guide for students and practitioners. John Wiley & Sons.)

How is it done?

Videos:

How to choose a dissertation topic by Armina Yonis (2022)

This is an introductory video that helps you find your research topic. It takes you step by step through the process with helpful examples. While Dr Yonis addresses university students, what she presents is useful for anyone who is in the process of developing a research project. So, check it out.

(Academic reference: Yonis, A. (2022, April 17). How to choose a dissertation topic [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUPR8maqk1Q)

Books:

From topics to questions by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb and Joseph Williams (2003)

This chapter gives you a step-by-step guide to how to develop your research topic. It also helps you to narrow the topic down to then formulate your research question. The entire book is worth checking out to help you with the development of your qualitative research project.

(Academic reference: Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2003). From topics to questions. In W. C. Booth, G. G., Colomb & J. M., Williams, The craft of research (2nd ed). (pp. 40-53).  University of Chicago Press.)

Planning a research project and formulating research questions by Alan Bryman (2016)

This introduction to research methods provides you with coverage of both quantitative and qualitative methods. Lots of examples and tools are provided to help bridge the gap between theory and practice.

(Academic reference: Bryman, A. (2016). Planning a research project and formulating research questions. In Social research methods. (pp. 80-95). Oxford University Press.)

Method in action

Articles:

Do different stakeholder groups share mental health research priorities? A four-arm Delphi study by Christabel Owens, Anne Ley and Peter Aitken

This article outlines a sophisticated method – a Delphi study – to determine research topics that are not only of interest to the researcher but also their stakeholders. You do not need to follow such an approach – the ones outlined above are solid. This example is just to illustrate what else can be done to determine a research topic.

(Academic reference: Owens, C., Ley, A., & Aitken, P. (2008). Do different stakeholder groups share mental health research priorities? A four‐arm Delphi study. Health Expectations11(4), 418-431.)