Choosing the right topic can make difference between an arduous research experience and a rewarding one. Qualitative research explores topics through intensive collection of narrative data. Quantitative research explains topics through focused collection of numerical data. For example, the topic of gun control may be approached qualitatively through in-depth interviews with people on both sides of the debate or quantitatively by a statistical analysis of trends and variables.

The Humanities

Human rights, piracy, and religious iconography are examples of topics in the humanities. Ideas for topics might be found from endowments, foundations and charitable trusts, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, and from most organizations that fund research. Exploratory questions like, “How do local workers interpret and make sense of career paths and obstacles in the cultural economy?” require a qualitative review of documentation, participant observation and interviewing. Explanatory questions like, “What is the relationship between the arts, entrepreneurship and innovation in the workplace?” necessitate quantitative concentration on a small, finite number of variables to describe current conditions and investigate relationships.

Social Sciences

Topics in the social sciences include, for example, abortion, immigration and marijuana legalization. Federal agencies may list topics as well as suggest approaches to research. The Army, for instance, may announce qualitative research grants to better understand the challenges service members face when returning home and reintegrating into the community. Exploratory verbs and phrases including “discover,” “seek to understand” and “report the stories” indicate that qualitative approaches are needed. Conversely, topics like the impact of veterans’ medical decisions on community reintegration suggest quantitative research, because of explanatory verbs and phrases including “affect,” “influence,” “impact,” “determine,” “cause” and “relate.”

Natural Sciences

Bioterrorism, environmental concerns, and nuclear energy are examples of topics in the natural sciences. Mother Nature may guide topics, approaches to research and data collection. For instance, the National Science Foundation may sponsor a qualitative case study of reactions to a natural disaster that asks, “What happened? What was involved in response to the disaster? What themes emerged during the months that followed?” Exploratory data collection entails qualitative approaches that are inductive, holistic and process orientated. By comparison, explanatory data collection involves quantitative approaches that are deductive, focused and outcome orientated. For example, to determine the effectiveness of a disaster-relief program, a quantitative survey may compare approval ratings across various demographics.

Professional Areas

Examples of topics in the professions might include educational testing, fair trade and Internet security. Occupational, professional and trade associations may inform the research topics and objectives. The American Educational Research Association, for example, may fund research on effective teachers. To develop specific measures for future study, a qualitative researcher may observe student interactions, review lesson plans and interview teachers, principals and students throughout the year. By contrast, to identify one or more generalizable variables that characterize effective teachers, a quantitative researcher may analyze finite, standardized, numerical data.