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Ezra's Research Diary: Tried and True Strategies for Effective Undergraduate Research: Choose a Research Question

This library guide is designed to help students understand the overall process of undergraduate research at Cornell.

Select a General Topic

First, begin with a topic of interest to youIf you start with an interesting topic, you will remain engaged with the project over time. Continued interest and engagement in your research question will help prevent burnout, mental blocks, boredom, and indifference. Furthermore, by exploring a topic that is interesting and meaningful to you, you will be better able to avoid an impassive “means to an end” approach to research and will instead visualize your work as one important slice in the greater intellectual pie.


Do Some "Presearching"

Next, you're going to have to do some presearching to gain a basic understanding of your topic and the research that has already been done on it. You can think of presearching as developing a snapshot or general overview of the topic, with an eye for trends, subproblems, and/or gaps in the existing research.

(For more tips on presearching, see Step 1. under "Develop a Search Strategy.")


Formulate a Preliminary Research Question

Now that you have a basic snapshot of your topic, think about the aspects that really piqued your interest and made you want to know more. Use these aspects to formulate a preliminary research question. This will help you narrow your topic.

If you're stuck, try asking these questions:

  • How does my topic fit into a larger context?
  • How has my topic changed through time?
  • What are the trends, subparts, or subproblems of my topic?
  • How does my topic compare or contrast with others like it?

Why is Your Question Significant or Important?

Sometimes it's fun to do research on a topic just because it is interesting to you personally. In the academic setting, however, you need to ask yourself a tough question: So what? In other words, why would anyone else be interested in the answer to your question? What are the potential consequences or applications of your research? Why does your research matter?

At this stage, try thinking in terms of the formula below:

"I am studying <topic> because I want to find out why/how <question> in order to help my reader understand <significance>."


"I am really interested in the topic of iPads and early childhood literacy..."

"I would like to know more about the methods of wastewater disposal after hydrofracking..."

"I'm so fascinated about how bipedalism evolved in humans! I wonder how this might be applied in robotics..."

Tips for Presearching

Let's be realistic: If there's ever a "good" time to use Google or Wikipedia, now is that time. Keep in mind a few tips:

  • as you are entering natural language search terms/phrases in Google (Scholar), keep a list of keywords, synonyms, and phrases that show up in your results. You can use these later in your search process.
  • consult the references at the bottom of the Wikipedia page 
  • try using a search engine other than Google (e.g. Bing, DuckDuckGo)


"How can the iPad be used to promote early childhood literacy with students who have autism spectrum disorders?"

"How can scientists prevent fracking wastewater from contaminating our drinking water?"

"In what ways can the evolution of bipedalism in humans influence the design of robot locomotion?"


"I am studying <iPads and early childhood literacy>, because I want to find out <how iPads might be used to promote literacy in students with autism spectrum disorders> in order to help my reader understand how <she can integrate iPads into her curriculum>."

"I am studying the <disposal methods of fracking wastewater>, because I want to find out <how to prevent the wastewater from contaminating our drinking water> in order to help my reader understand <whether or not his/her drinking water is potable after fracking>."

"I am studying <the evolution of bipedalism in humans>, because I want to find out <how to build a better  bipedal robot> in order to help my reader understand <how humanoid robots can be useful in exploring geologically unstable areas, like volcanos>."