If the instructor should assign a topic, your first step clearly must be to familiarize yourself with that topic. You should first check the relevant pages of your class text, some other introductory text, or a general or subject encyclopedia, handbook, or similar source. You might, for instance, consult an online encyclopedia, such as Britannica Online (accessible from the VU library web page.) If, on the other hand, the choice of topic is left to you (the rule in college rather than the exception), a real challenge arises. Selecting an initial topic can be a time-consuming and frustrating task. It is wise to choose a topic about which you already have at least minimal knowledge–this should help you get started in the right direction.
The basic problem is to develop a topic that is both interesting and workable. You can spend hours trying to formulate an approach or researching an unworkable subject. A topic that may be interesting (“How to Prevent World War III”) is not always manageable, while one that may be manageable (“Guatemalan-American Relations in 1921”) might not stir your imagination. Students tend to err on the side of choosing overly broad topics, which can lead to a superficial paper. Consulting with the instructor can help refine the topic to an appropriate breadth. You must also gear your topic to the holdings of accessible libraries. Even with the number and variety of resources available on line, some ideas that are feasible at UC Irvine may not be at Vanguard University. If you wish to be able to complete the research requirements at VU, you will need to do some preliminary searching to ensure that resources are available.
It is important to select a topic that is interesting, not only as it is originally conceived, but that continues to hold your interest throughout the hard task of research. Choosing a topic and scanning the sources are not separate tasks; they are intertwined–doing one helps in doing the other.
Once you have found a topic, you need to develop a thesis statement or questions, a crucial part of the paper, indicating your intentions as precisely as possible. Where do you plan to go with your topic? How do you plan to treat it generally? With what approach and to what end? Consider each of these questions thoughtfully. Thinking through your topic can save you a lot of grief later.
Now, on the basis of your preliminary survey of the topic, prepare a rough outline, developing as many headings and sub-headings as possible. Here, for the first time, list the various angles of the topic to be investigated. This tentative outline should be your constant guide for research. While it is the skeleton of your final paper, you can add or subtract material from it as you proceed. At this point, give some thought to the length of the paper and the appropriate size of introduction and conclusion. For example, the Department’s 12-15 page paper should have an introduction and conclusion of about one page each.