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Pick a Topic

Pick a Topic

Getting Started

Before you can begin a search, you need to think about your assignment and your research topic. First, answer these questions about your assignment:

1. What type of research assignment is it?

  • Argumentative/persuasive essay
  • Comparison of treatment options
  • Analysis of a current theory

2. How many pages are required?

  • A broad topic will be too much for 3-4 pages
  • A very narrow topic might not have enough research for a 10-page paper

3. What type of sources are required?

  • Academic journals
  • Peer-reviewed articles
  • News or current events
  • Websites
  • Government documents or statistical data

4. Are topic suggestions supplied by your instructor?

  • Google the topic
  • Look for headlines or phrases that could be a subtopic
  • Google the subtopic, make notes

Now, within the context of your assignment, you need to brainstorm a topic. This is a great time to use Google or Wikipedia. If you only have a broad topic in mind, such as “diabetes” you will quickly become overwhelmed in your research. Such a broad topic is not appropriate for a 5-page paper. You want to develop a topic that is narrow enough to give you direction and boundaries, but broad enough that you can find appropriate sources.

The goal of your brainstorming session is to develop a research statement or question to guide you through the research process.


As you search for topic ideas, you can use some of these tools:


List can be a great way to simultaneously narrow a broad topic and create potential keywords for searching.

For example, start with a basic or broad topic: nurse burnout. Then jot down everything that pops into your head (or catches your eye online) about burnout, stress, retention versus attrition, etc.

You can also create a list of opposites. This is a great strategy for argumentative essays, as you will need to explore multiple viewpoint

Nurse Burnout 



Compassion fatigue

Staff shortages

Shift work




Mental health


Another popular form of brainstorming is mapping. Start with your general topic in the center. Then, as you begin to brainstorm, branch off into different clusters or subtopics. There are many free mapping tools online, or you can use paper and pencil.

Make a Statement

Now it’s time put it together! You can write this as a thesis statement or a research question. Ask yourself, what do you seek to know and why? Try out different questions and then ask yourself questions about the question.

  • Is this question clear?
  • Is my question focused? Is it too focused?
  • Is it complex?
  • Can this be answered with a yes or no?
  • Would the answer be an opinion rather than backed by factual evidence?

How can you prevent nurse burnout?

Too broad. Open-ended questions can be a good start for brainstorming. Googling this question will take you down many paths, but most notably you'll need to answer this: Who is doing the prevention - the employer or the nurse? That will dictate the methods of prevention, such as lowering staff levels (employer) versus using meditation (nurse). 

Yikes! But the good news is, in asking these questions, you may have stumbled onto your focused topic! You might consider comparing two different approaches to coping with stress, perhaps group support versus individual self-care, or physical activity versus meditation. Comparing interventions can give you focus.

New Question:

For nurses experiencing signs of burnout, which is more effective at improving stress levels: spiritual or mindfulness coping strategies or physical recreational activities?


Note: Your initial search question does not need to be this complex at the start. It may also change as you learn more about your topic. 

Create Search Terms

Choose Terms

Now that you have a research topic, you’re ready to create your search terms! You might be tempted to type your research question into a database -


Databases use keywords and subject terms to find articles. Phrases and sentences will not yield relevant results. Instead, focus on the the most important words in your research statement.

For nurses experiencing signs of burnout, which is more effective at improving stress levelsspiritual or mindfulness coping strategies or physical recreational activities?

Next, you will need to find synonyms (similar terms). Because some people say “soda” and others say “pop,” your first choice of keywords may not yield the best results. Grab your thesaurus or Google and start jotting down terms in groups. Consult a medical thesaurus to learn the language of your profession. If you are writing an argumentative essay, you should also create an “opposing” side or antonyms.



healthcare workers


compassion fatigue

work-related chronic stress

coping strategies







physical activity

recreational activity





walking / hiking


Here are some additional non-NMC videos.

Types of Sources

You have an assignment, topic, and keywords. Now what?

Your first urge may be to simply Google your topic. While this a good tool for brainstorming and gathering some general background information, Google may not have the appropriate resources. Ask yourself, What type of information do I need, and how do I get it?

Information Need Source Type Where to Get It



Library catalog

Encyclopedia websites




Trade journals

Scholarly journals

Library databases

Websites (news, magazines, etc.)

Research & Scholarly Scholarly journals

Library databases

Google scholar (may not have full-text)


Government sites

Scholarly journals

Industry reports


Library databases


Periodicals can include newspapers, magazines, trade journals, and scholarly journals. Each type of publication serves a purpose and audience. Generally, you will want to use scholarly journals/peer-reviewed articles for your research papers, but magazines (trade or popular) may provide inspiration or examples to illustrate a point. For instance, you might use an article from Women's Health to demonstrate the information patients are reading regarding nutrition and weight loss and how it may be misinterpreted.

  Popular Trade Scholarly
Appearance Glossy pages, lots of ads, illustrations Glossy pages, illustrations, ads targeted to specific industry interests Plain cover and paper, black and white graphics (rarely color), few to no ads
Audience General public Professionals, members of a particular industry Researchers, professionals, educators
Content News, general interest, personalities, entertainment Industry trends and news, advice and techniques Research studies, methodologies, theories, literature reviews
Authority Articles written by staff writers, rarely in-depth, few to no references Articles written by staff and freelance authors; few to no references

Articles written by researchers and field experts.

Bibliographies contain extensive, scholarly references

Accountability Editorial review Editorial review Peer-reviewed/refereed by other experts in the field
Example Covers & Titles



Entertainment Weekly

Psychology Today

PC World

American Libraries

Journal of the American Medical Association

Applied Radiology

Example Articles "Ditch dieting, get healthy" - Shape

"Obesity Therapy: Reason for dieting affects dieting behavior" -

Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week
"Environmental and genetic pathways between early pubertal timing and dieting in adolescence: distinguishing between objective and subjective timing" - Psychological Medicine


Peer Reviewed 

Peer-reviewed articles go through a rigorous validation process prior to publication. An article is submitted to a journal, it is reviewed by a panel of experts in that subject area to evaluate the research methods, results, and conclusions. This is why researchers (and your instructors) prefer peer-reviewed articles for research. Your instructors want you to find and use the best.

It also introduces you to the conversations in your field of study. Scholarly articles allow researchers to discuss their findings and anticipate and seek out new discoveries.

Empirical Studies 


Use these guidelines to determine if an article is an empirical study.

  • Is the article published in an academic, scholarly, or professional journal? Popular magazines such as Time or People do not publish empirical research articles; academic journals such as Gender and Society or Child Psychiatry and Human Development do publish empirical articles. 
  • Does the abstract of the article mention a study, an observation, an analysis or a number of participants or subjects? Was data collected, a survey or questionnaire administered, an assessment or measurement used, an interview conducted? All of these terms indicate possible methodologies used in empirical research.
  • Empirical articles normally contain these sections:
    1. Abstract - a paragraph-long summary of the research.
    2. Introduction - sets the research in context, providing a review of related research and stating hypotheses for the research.
    3. Methodology - describes how the research was conducted. Who were the participants? What is the study's design? What did the participants do? What measures were used? How were the study data collected?
    4. Results - describes the final findings reached through analysis of the data through narrative, graphs, tables, and other graphical elements. 
    5. Discussion - contains the interpretations and implications of the study.
    6. Conclusion - brings together the research question, the research statement and/or hypothesis, and the findings.
    7. References - lists the articles, books, and other materials cited in the report.

Is it a research study?


CRAAP - Evaluating Sources

Currency - the timeliness of the information

  • When was the information published or posted?
  • Has the information been revised or updated?
  • Does your topic require current information, or will older sources work as well?
  • Are the links functional?

Another thing to consider - does the website's copyright date match the content's currency?  Or is it just a standard range?

Relevance - The importance of the information for your needs

  • Does the information relate to your topic or answer your question?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the information at an appropriate level (i.e. not too elementary or advanced for your needs)?
  • Have you looked at a variety of sources before determining this is one you will use?

Authority The source of the information

  • Who is the author/publisher/source/sponsor?
  • What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations?
  • Is the author qualified to write on the topic?
  • Is there contact information, such as a publisher or email address?
  • Does the URL reveal anything about the author or source?

Note - to help answer Authority and Purpose questions, check out a website's About page

Accuracy - The reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content

  • Where does the information come from?
  • Is the information supported by evidence?
  • Has the information been reviewed or refereed?
  • Can you verify any of the information in another source or from personal knowledge?
  • Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion?
  • Are there spelling, grammar or typographical errors?

Purpose - The reason the information exists

  • What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform, teach, sell, entertain or persuade?
  • Do the authors/sponsors make their intentions or purpose clear?
  • Is the information fact, opinion or propaganda?
  • Does the point of view appear objective and impartial?
  • Are there political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional or personal biases?

Note - to help answer Authority and Purpose questions, check out a website's About page.

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