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Engineering: Technical Communications

From Topic to Thesis Statement

Finding a topic can be one of the most difficult parts of a research or writing project. There are a few things you'll need to consider:
  • Is the topic interesting to you?
    • Even if you don't think so, if you've been assigned (or are otherwise stuck with) the topic, can you find something interesting about it?
  • Is the topic an appropriate scope for the project/assignment?
    • Scope relates to how broad or narrow the topic is, and how much depth you'll go into. Generally, when researching a topic your approach can be broad and shallow or narrow and deep; attempting to research/write both broadly and deeply doesn't usually end well.
    • When thinking about scope, consider: How long is the assignment? How much time do you have to work on it? How much information will you be able to find on the topic?
  • Will you be able to understand and effectively use the information you find on the topic?
    • Information that is so highly specialized or technical that you can't understand it will be only slightly more useful to you than no information at all.

Keep in mind that research is an iterative process. Finding a topic might be better understood as developing a topic. Don't be afraid to reevaluate after you've started the research process.

To search for information on your topic in the library databases, you'll need to generate search terms to use. Try to phrase your topic as a single sentence or question, then pick out the key words. Consider if there are any synonyms (like "canines" and "dogs") to include in your search.

The University of Texas Libraries have developed the Generate Keywords Tool to help with brainstorming keywords.

If you get an overwhelming number of results, or too few results, you'll likely need to reevaluate your search terms, your topic, or both.

It is good research practice to keep a record of what searches you've tried (search terms you used, if you combined them in a particular way, etc.) to enable you to revise searches and avoid repeating the same search multiple times.

Use Primo to do a basic search for just about anything: articles, books, conference proceedings, theses, and more.

Use the Databases A-Z tool to go to a specific database. Searching within a database will give you a more focused search than using Primo, but your results will be limited to resources within that specific database.

Each database is different and covers different resource types. To learn more about a database or find the right one for you, talk to a librarian.

Once you've developed your topic and done some research, develop your thesis statement. In one sentence, what are you trying to convey? The thesis statement is usually placed at the end of the first paragraph or introduction.

Writing and Citing

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) is a resource that all college students should know about. It has information on the writing process in general; guides for MLA, APA, Chicago, and other citation styles; and information on subject-specific writing.

Purdue OWL Writing in Engineering Guide

Purdue OWL Professional, Technical Writing Guide

Colorado State University also has several guides focused on Writing in Engineering

Keep track of your references as you research and write your paper. It is significantly easier to make a note of a resource while you're looking at it than to attempt to recall where you got a piece of information from as you're writing, potentially weeks or months after you had the resource in front of you.

There are several programs you can use to manage your references and generate citations. Recommended:

  • Zotero -- Free and open source. Easy to learn and use. Works with Word, LibreOffice, and Google Docs.
  • EndNote -- Available free to current AU students and faculty; otherwise paid product. Steep learning curve, but powerful. Works with Word, LibreOffice, and Pages.

All of these pieces of software enable you to build a library of references, then automatically generate citations in a wide variety of formats as you write and insert them into your paper. You will also be able to change the citation style of all of your references easily, if needed.

A word of caution: You will still need to double-check the output of your citation/reference manager, and you may need to make corrections. Also, the principle of "Garbage in, garbage out" applies. As you import a reference into your software of choice, make sure that the info is complete and in the right fields (for example: Is the full title in the title field?, Is someone an author or an editor?, etc.); this will save you significant headaches down the road.

I'm here to help!

Librarians are here to help you throughout the research process. One of the places we can be especially helpful is in the topic development phase. We can help you clarify your area of interest, come up with keywords and search strategies, and point you in the direction of good resources to start with. Email me to set up a time to talk about your assignment or research project.