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Physician Assistant Online Program: Brainstorming and refining capstone topics

This guide contains resources for students in Yale's Online PA Program, such as: key resources for success in the classroom and the clinic, information on accessing materials off campus, information on drugs, diagnoses, PE, and recommended mobile apps

About this page

This section will walk you through exercises to develop a research topic and get a sense of the availability of literature on that topic. If you prefer to watch a recording, these concepts were covered in the November 2022 librarian live session.

At this stage of your project, you are executing scoping searches. 

Scoping searches help you: 

  • get an idea of how much literature there is on a topic

  • find prominent authors and papers in the field

  • identify gaps in the current scholarly conversation

  • refine your research question

This is in contrast to comprehensive or systematic searching, which you will conduct once your topic is finalized.

Brainstorming exercise

From term list to search strategy

Join synonyms together with ORs and major concepts together with ANDs. If you have three main ideas in your research topic, a search strategy could look like this: (concept A or A synonym or A acronym) AND (concept B or B synonym or B acronym) AND (concept C). It's important to include a variety of terms since authors refer to similar ideas by different names - you don't want to miss the perfect paper because somebody called it CBT and you wrote out "cognitive behavioral therapy"! 

  • Example: (cannabinoid OR cannabis) AND (epilepsy OR seizure)
  • Example: (THC OR tetrahydrocannabinol) AND (CBD or cannabidiol) AND (epilepsy OR seizure)

Scoping searches in two databases

No one database holds the entirety of the biomedical literature. While PubMed is a great tool, it only holds about 5,000 journals. Meanwhile, Scopus has ~30k across a range of disciplines. The size of both tools have different affordances: PubMed's limited scope means each article is tagged with subject headings, study design, population characteristics, and more that make finding extremely relevant papers possible quickly; meanwhile, Scopus's broad content facilitates tracking citations, allowing you to track the development of the scholarly conversation of a topic over time. 

Refine and reflect

Work through these questions to refine your research topic and reflect on your work:

  • How did your initial topic change over the course of brainstorming search terms and conducting scoping searches? 
  • What is your topic of interest now? 
  • How many relevant papers did you find today? How many are clinical trials, compared to opinion pieces or conference presentations? 
  • Is there still an active conversation around your topic in the literature? Or did publishing drop off 5+ years ago? 
  • Does your topic seem like a viable capstone topic? 
  • If not, how could you broaden the scope to find good evidence, or narrow the scope to make results sets more manageable? 

Testing the viability of your topic worksheet