Choosing a Topic

Research Advising

Your research advisor is available to chat with you about possible topic ideas. She can discuss important project design elements, such as:
  • Framing your research question effectively, taking into account categories of assumption and delineating system boundaries.
  • Determining where and how this question “fits into the current landscape of ideas” within your respective discipline.
  • Proposing methodology well-suited for addressing this question (and perhaps testing associated hypotheses).
  • Mapping out what you hope to accomplish with this approach.
  • Identifying stakeholders potentially impacting, or being impacted by, the research.

Past Capstone Topics

If you don't have a specific topic in mind and are in need of inspiration before diving head first into a literature review, browse the list of past capstone topics (see sidebar). The research projects of your fellow students will surely spark your creative thinking.

Literature Review

The first step for any researcher when choosing a topic is to complete a literature review. A review of exisiting research offers you background preparation to gain a better understanding of your topic. It also allows you to create a case for why further study is necessary.  You will be able to answer the "so what" question about your topic, because you can point to a gap in the literature or a path for you to extend others' research to further establish the findings as valid.

Literature reviews also help you identify the different research methods used by scholars in the field that has produced valid and reliable results. You can replicate these methods in your own work because very few researchers invent methods from scratch.

But perhaps most important, academic research is done on the shoulders of prior scholars; it is a collaborative and community event. You need to give credit to those who have come before you and draw upon their work to produce your own. You will not be a credible author of research if you cannot articulate what the field already knows and believes is true about your topic. A reader cannot trust what you have to say if you do not frame your work within the broader context of the exisiting research community.

To begin:

We recommend that you become familiar with all of the resources offered through the Harvard Libraries. If you have questions on this, contact your research advisor, Katherine Burton Jones, for assistance.

  • By reviewing journal articles on your broad interest, you'll start to see how other researchers have broken down the subject into smaller, managable topics. You don't want a project that is about the entire elephant, just his right toenail.
  • When you are doing a review of your topic, you are looking for a balance of prior research. You need to choose a topic where there is enough prior work to support, frame, and ground your research, but not so much that there is very little left to say that is new and interesting. 
  • Once you find a particularly relevant article, be sure to “mine" the work's reference section for additional sources that are squarely related to your topic. 
  • In using any literature, pay particular attention to how recently it was published and how valid and reliable it is, and in some cases, to the scholarly reputation of the author or publisher. Ordinarily, you want to stick to research that is five or less years old, unless it is a seminal work in the field that is timeless. You also want to stick to academic, peer-reviewed journals.
  • Reach out to the reference librarians in Harvard’s libraries. They can give you information about relevant databases and help you to perform literature searches. It is important for you to learn how to use HOLLIS, the University Libraries’ online catalog, as well as the journal indexing and abstracting resources, the various encyclopedias, dictionaries and bibliographies in your field of interest.
  • Undocumented sources like timelines and documentaries may not be used for the capstone work. This means if there are not sources cited by the author of a web page and none included in the documentary, the source is not valid.

The literature review provides a foundation for your capstone. As you conduct the review, start an annotated bibilography which will be a researach tool and the content of assisgments for the pre-capstone tutorial as well as the capstone.