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It’s easy to get daunted by the idea of starting a research project. Although “finding information” sounds pretty simple, many of us get overwhelmed when we starting thinking of all the things that go into finding what we need for a research project: figuring out where to look, understanding and determining what is important, deciding how to organize — not to mention incorporating all of this into the actual writing of your paper. Whew!
However, even though research can seem like an overwhelming task, if you are able to break “research” down into manageable chunks, you’ll find that it doesn’t have to be so bad. Research isn’t only finding information or facts; you will also find others’ viewpoints and interpretations of that information. And finally, you will add your interpretation to the mix so that your paper is not a report but a critical look at a topic.
Doing all of this, of course, takes some time and planning, so it can be helpful to think of doing research much like going on a road trip. You just don’t hop in the car and go; you also pack snacks, get directions, check your tire pressure, and find places to stop along the way. Research is the same way. Making a checklist and timeline of all the things you have to do will help you effectively reach your destination. Keep reading to find out how you can create a personal research roadmap that will help you reach your destination safely and without panic.
The first thing you need to do is make sure you understand the assignment. You don’t want to waste time doing work that won’t fit your project. If you’re not sure what you are supposed to be doing, consult classmates, your professor, or the Writing Center.
If you have the option to choose your topic for research, do this next. Keep in mind the parameters of the assignment, including date due, page length, and project objectives, so you don’t pick a topic that is too broad or narrow for the assignment.
Do some preliminary research on your topic. Consult general sources, such as class notes, textbooks, reference books, and the Internet. You won’t use this material in your final paper but it will give you general information to help you focus your topic choice.
Based on your preliminary research, figure out what types of material you will need to find for your paper. Remember that information consists of both facts and other peoples’ interpretations of those facts. Knowing what you need will make your research more focused, which will save you time.
Create a timeline for completing research. You should do Phase 1 very soon after receiving your assignment. Phase 2 and 3 will take the longest, so don't put them off to the last minute.
Find keywords that get you into the topic. This may take some experimenting and the task can be frustrating, so use your preliminary research to help you figure out what terms are most relevant for your search.
You’ll probably be using mostly scholarly sources for your paper, so consult library books and electronic databases through the library’s website. (Google searches are not a good use of your time. Promise.) You can consult the help desk in the library or the Writing Center for help on searching.
Once you’ve done research, prioritize your sources. Start with more introductory material to learn the basic facts and then go for more evaluation and interpretation. Don’t feel you have to read every single word of every single source—scan for relevant material and then read more carefully in more important sections.
Take notes as you read your sources. Write down important ideas, quotations, and your own analysis. Writing as you read (instead of waiting ‘til the end) will save you lots of time and energy. Look for the central ideas of sources and think about how they could be organized. Allow ideas to emerge through your research.
Revisit your notes and key quotations from your sources. Identify key concepts, ideas, and points of debate within your subject.
Think about how you can organize your sources around major points of interpretation instead of general topics. Revisit your assignment sheet to make sure you’re still on the right track.
Write a first draft so you can get your ideas out on paper. Divide your paper into smaller chunks so you can work on one chunk at a time. You don’t need to worry about getting everything perfect, but you do want to push your thinking to be analytical and critical. Skip writing the introduction for now. You’ll have a better idea of what to say after you write a draft.
Read your draft and determine if you need to fill holes in your research. Sometimes you won’t realize you need certain things until you start writing, so it helps to set aside some time to go back and do a bit more focused research.
Write a second draft. The value of a second draft can’t be emphasized enough. A second draft is a lot more than just a proofread first draft — it is a refining of your ideas. As you write, you’ll discover your ideas in the first draft; in the second, you’ll make them understandable to outside readers. (Psst—it’s easier to focus your ideas if you start with a blank document instead of trying to directly change your first draft.)