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History Research Seminar: Best Practices for Students

This guide support students enrolled in the Research Seminars in the History Department.


Topic selection or development of a research question can get going very early on in the quarter. This may take place before you've had a change to delved into the course's subject. The experiences of former research seminar students and advice from professors provide important food for thought...

Shift your mindset:

  • Be Curious - Sure, it should be something you're interested in, but what new angle are you curious to pursue? Asking "Why" or brainstorming with a peer, your professor, or a librarian might spark some inspiration.


  • Be outward looking - Will your topic be interesting to others? Does it hold up in the knowledge ecosystem of the courses theme? 


  • Be Agile and Flexible - Your topic will evolve as you learn more. Initially you are centering what you're interested in. Feedback from your professor and experience with sources, especially background reading, will help clarify things.


  • Be Communicative When things are unclear (like, "Your topic is too broad") or you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out to us. Your professor, of course, is a natural go to. Office hours and library drop in are exactly for you. You just have to make the time and be open to sharing, especially when it feels like your assignment deadlines are creating stress. 

Be mindful of topic pitfalls, for example:

  • Choosing a topic or person that is not well documented (ie limited to no primary sources) - Instead, orient the topic so that it has a broader perspective; zoom out a bit to incorporate more information.


  • Topics that compare things - These types of question can be difficult to manage. You would essentially be searching for two different topics, and the results might not add up.


  • Assuming your topic will stay the same - It's natural for your topic to evolve as you learn more.


  • "I have to sound knowledgable about the topic I pick" - Your knowledge and understanding of the topic will grow as you read up on it. An academic encyclopedia or book with a strong historical overview will be very helpful at the beginning of the process. Additionally, look at the assigned readings in your course's syllabus. Look for readings in the syllabus that might provide an overview for the topic you're interested in. As you read these, pay attention to cultural shifts, attitudes, political forces, etc. as well as well as the authors own questions, and their analyses and arguments. As you move forward with your research, and engage with primary sources, this will start to fill in the gaps in your thinking; seek out different perspectives and pay attention to the questions that start to bubble up inside you. Secondary Sources will deepen your understanding of the context surrounding your specific topic; pay attention to any contraditions, interpretations, authors' questions, analyses and arguments, etc. Research is a process of gaining knowledge and making sense of it, not having all the answers before you begin.

Read a source to generate new ideas, for example:

  • A Primary Source may get you thinking about of who, what, why questions. Make note of new questions you might have upon reading these primary sources.  


  • An Encyclopedia from an academic publisher--Oxford University Press, Duke University Press, University of California Press, an so on--will contextualize a topic based the ways the topic has evolved of time, by major subthemes, or the key academics who have studied the topic. Look out for names  events, people, or organizations. Look out for the name of scholars and the studies they wrote about related to this topic. Use these keywords to search a Library database 


  • Academic Book that is foundational to a topic you're interested in. What questions did they pose and, more importantly, what did they not ask or not answer? What are you curious about within this subject area that these scholars missed?


  • Your Course Syllabus... the readings found here are fertile ground for new ideas and topics.