As a PhD student I've grown used to this fact of life, and yet coming up with paper topics is still one of the most harrowing experiences of my term. I just wish a professor would tell me exactly where I should be looking and what I should be looking for. And yet, they just throw me to the wolves. Fair enough. I am supposed to have my own research interests after all, and I should also be competent enough at research to know where to start, but it still remains daunting.
Today I must decide on a paper topic for a seminar on Sophocles' Antigone, so I've been thinking a lot about process of deciding on a paper topic. I don't want to be reductive, but it amazes me how this harrowing decision can turn into a rather simple one if you follow a few steps. These steps are not always easily discernable, and they may be different for everybody, but this is how this process has worked for me for the last eight years, and hopefully it can help you out the next time a professor utters those words "You can write about anything you want."
1. Follow your gut, and then write a list
It's helpful to keep note of the things that have sparked even the slightest interests during class or while reading and researching. Make a list of 3 of those thoughts, 3 things that made you think "hmm". They don't have to be formulated topics or ideas, but just get them out of your head and on paper. It might be good to talk about those ideas with a friend or other classmate. Often verbalizing ideas help you know how strong they are or how much potential they have.
This is one of my favorite parts of the process because I love how odd the connections I make have become over the years. Even the craziest idea could turn into a compelling paper. For instance, in my recent course on coldness and culture, when my professor was talking about ice palaces and ice hotels I immediately thought of Kubrick's The Shining and as silly as it may have sounded to everyone else, I held on to that connection and ended up writing one of my favorite papers.
2. Can you really write about anything you want?
Sometimes it's helpful to know a little bit about your professor, or to at least have a clear idea of the goals and intended outcomes of the course. Sometimes the things that interest you might not actually be as appropriate as you thought. Talk to your professor about your ideas, even if your ideas are still nebulous. Sometimes it's helpful to just test the waters and see if your professor responds well to an idea or not. For instance, I spoke with my professor, a bit of a famous Lacanian scholar, and told her about the connections I was making in my mind of Antigone to Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher". She laughed me to scorn, and made me think twice about a) if I should pursue this topic and b) if I did pursue it, how I could make her eat her words.
Remember that just because your professor might be a little incredulous that you could pull off your topic, that doesn't mean you have to completely shy away from it, especially if it interests you a great deal. Sometimes I take it as a challenge, she becomes an audience that I might actually be able to persuade, which is often the whole point of essays. Your professor doesn't necessarily want you to regurgitate back to them what they said in class or what you read in the assigned readings.
On the other hand, I recently received a low mark on a paper because I obviously didn't understand the course goals. Although I believe that the course itself didn't understand its own goals, I do realize I should have looked at those goals a little more closely when I was deciding on a topic. They might say you can write about anything you want, but the course itself should provide helpful constraints.
3. Preliminary research
Let's say you have 3 nebulous ideas floating around in your head. You've gone to class and done the assigned readings, now is the time to look a little more into the ideas you have. Don't set it in stone just yet, and don't put in too many hours into a topic you haven't decided on. Spend an afternoon reading through your class notes, skimming over assigned readings, browsing Wikipedia pages, internet articles or a couple of books in the library. Keep your mind open and free to trail from thought to thought. Some of my favorite papers came from stumbling upon a problem or idea during this stage of research.
4. Just go for it, but be flexible
Take a moment to imagine the kind of paper you want to hand in. Are any of the three topics you're thinking about growing weightier with the research you've already done? More often than not I don't actually decide on my topic until I've written an outline or an introduction. I usually start large, then narrow my focus down when I find a point or two that fits in with the course goals.
Really the best way to finally decide on a topic is to start writing and to continue researching. I have a difficult time when professors want me to bring them a solid topic a month before the paper is due because I don't feel enveloped enough in the process of writing to know what I'm actually writing about. How can I know what my paper is about if I haven't yet written it?
The biggest lesson I've learned as a PhD student is to be flexible when I'm writing and researching. On the papers where I stuck rigidly to my initial topic, I felt that I wasn't developing an exciting or engaging argument. I felt that I was just getting it down to hand in on time, and in the end I received low marks anyway. Pigheadedness will not produce quality writing. Flexibility, on the other hand, could open doors that you never imagined you'd walk through.
For a list of 75 controversial essay topics for your next paper check out CollegeWritingResource.com