The Wavy Girls’ Guide to Research: Picking a Topic

Happy Saturday everyone and welcome to the Wavy Girls’ Guide to Research series! I’ve started this series to encourage and prepare other girls to venture into their own research project not only as an academic challenge but also as a journey of self-discovery and improvement. Research doesn’t just have to involve books and old documents- as you open your eyes to the world around you, you unconsciously discover more about yourself. I mentioned in my last blog post about traveling to Mexico this summer to conduct research on Marian Devotion in Monterrey, but I saved the best details for this series.

As a Math and Econ Major I didn’t believe I was capable of doing research at the same level as a lot of my peers; not only was I intimidated by the fact that I’ve barely touched upon these topics, I just didn’t have any confidence in my academic abilities. Research was this huge complicated and scary concept for me that I thought only grad students and scientists attempted, however this misconception was challenged after reading Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis (a book that I highly recommend you read before going down the research route). Eco eloquently breaks down the steps of beginning your own study in such a simple manner that I felt motivated to take on my own research project. I started to see research as an opportunity to complement my STEM-heavy courses with a more humanities-based approach, something that ignited my interest and pushed me to learn more about doing research.

My research focuses on the popular perceptions revolving Our Lady of Guadalupe in the city of Monterrey, Mexico and attitudes towards her as a feminist icon. Traditionally the Virgin Mary is idealized as passive and pure and many claim this canon of femininity has established unattainable and harmful expectations for women. On the other hand feminist narratives created by women of both traditional and liberal perspectives have sparked interest in her role as a feminist icon and have reinvented her image. Virgin Mary is placed in an odd position where differing perspectives create tension within the church and controversy outside of it. The main questions I seek to answer are whether Catholic women in the liberal city of Monterrey in Mexico possess a feminist perception of Our Lady of Guadalupe in which she is a symbol of empowerment, or do they still preserve a conventional and conservative perspective that presumes the opposite? Assuming this is not a binary nor two mutually exclusive events where do everyday women in Monterrey fall in this spectrum on the perception of Our Lady of Guadalupe? By actually traveling to Monterrey and creating dialogue through conversations/interviews with local women I had the opportunity to find patterns and answer even deeper questions.

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Picking a Topic:

The main question is: What are you interested in? While at its surface this questions seems painless, trying to actually answer and coordinating that answer to something that’s accessible for research can be difficult. You may also have the opposite problem and see so many routes that you cannot narrow down your answer- picking a research topic isn’t easy! There are many steps and many details to consider, but that’s what we’re here to figure out.

Before beginning to consider topics, you must answer the last question honestly. Due to the amount of time you’ll be dedicating to this research project you must choose something that captures your interest and that you might even be excited about. Maybe you want to supplement your major or minor and want to focus on that subject, or you might be invested in something in particular that you learned in one of your classes. You might be concerned about a current event or issue and want to learn more about its history or root causes. Do you want to go back in time and learn about the past? Or are you more fascinated by what people today think and do? Did you see something cool on TV or read an engaging book that made you wonder who or how or why?

There are no limits to what you can choose to research. For me, I was inclined to learn about an aspect of myself I never really analyzed or even bothered to be curious about before: I chose to focus on my culture, specifically regarding my Catholic background. As a Mexican and Catholic, the Lady of Guadalupe is something that I grew up with and that has always been present in my life. It is virtually impossible to separate Mexican culture from this religious figure as her presence is all-encompassing and has flourished in both the private and public domains. I was curious about how this “Marian cult” began, how it grew, and its role in today’s society. It was a topic I could relate to and that made me feel excited about becoming a part of academia.

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After you’ve chosen a broad topic make sure you do some preliminary reading and get background information to make sure this is something you’re truly intent on pursuing and that you can handle. It doesn’t have to be too deep- a quick stop at your local library or even a Google search will give you the opportunity to dig deeper into your topic so you can slowly begin to narrow down thesis. This early phase of research is important as it will give you a foundation to build on, or maybe even lead you towards a completely but just-as-desirable direction.As you read and gather background information make sure you’re brainstorming questions, no matter how specific or abstract they are. You won’t need them yet, but they’ll come in handy soon.

Your next step will be to narrow down your topic and make it as specific as possible, so write down key ideas and sub-topics. A broad topic will only give you headaches for you’ll have too much information and no way of molding it all into a coherent thesis. If you can do research based on a specific city rather than a country then that’s great, but if you can narrow it down even more to a specific town or district within that city then even better! Narrow down every facet of your topic as much as you can so you don’t get overwhelmed later on; this includes demographics, time periods, organizations/institutions, locations, etc. As you do this and as you’re reading up on your topic keep an eye out for ideas or questions that seem saturated. What I mean by this is look for a gap in the information you’re gathering, and see if your research can focus on filling that gap. Conducting research on something that’s already been done isn’t off-limits but your goal should be to contribute new information or create a passageway for new research where others can use your thesis to develop other similar ideas.

Keep in mind as you’re conceptualizing an idea that your research has to be something feasible that you are capable of overseeing. Unless you plan on learning a whole new language and becoming fluent in it do not plan on doing research on French/Czech/etc. literature or interviewing people who do not speak a language that you do. Check that any books or documents or artifacts that you need are accessible to you, meaning they are either available locally or you have the option of traveling to them. If your research requires international travel make sure you are able to familiarize yourself with the culture and local laws before setting out. Consider every single facet of your topic and think of a solution for any problem you may encounter. Most importantly make sure you are willing to get your hands dirty with new knowledge, but do not underestimate your own abilities!

To end this first part of the series, before you start you must know that research is a humbling experience. You have to be open to letting go of predisposed conceptions and embracing new notions as they come. You might know what your topic is and have an idea about what you’re looking for, but you don’t really know what you’re going to find and you have to accept that and be okay with it. Throughout my research I found myself unintentionally trying to find answers that went along with my bias, and I had to acknowledge this and fix my approach accordingly. As you open up your eyes and mind and acquire knowledge you’re not familiar with you’re not only becoming a true researcher, you’re also becoming a better version of yourself. Yes, that sounds corny and dramatic but I speak from experience; it’s a feeling that fills you with pride and even more curiosity to keep digging in.

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