Starting Your Research

The Research Process

So, you’ve been assigned a research project. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve done research at the college level. This may seem daunting, but Research 101 is here to teach you the basics! The research process can be broken down into a few basic steps:

  1. Choosing a topic
  2. Doing background research
  3. Creating a search strategy and selecting databases
  4. Searching for sources
  5. Evaluating the sources

The process isn’t a straight line: you might have to go back to earlier steps. For instance, if you can’t find enough sources, you might have to re-focus your topic. That’s okay! It’s just how research works.

Getting Organized

Before you start your research you might want to download a reference manager like Zotero. Reference managers show their value later in the process when you need to cite your sources: they make creating a bibliography easy!

Consider keeping a research log. Keeping track of the databases you search and the terms you use will help you prevent you from duplicating effort later on.

Choosing a Topic

Selecting an appropriate topic for your project is important. It is common for students to select topics that are either too broad ("Climate Change") or too narrow ("Misogynistic auto advertising on Brazilian TV"). If your topic is too broad, you’ll have a hard time covering it in a paper. If too narrow, it will be hard to find sources. Pick something that can be addressed in the time frame and the length of the assignment.

Start by listing subjects that are appropriate to the assignment and that interest you. At this stage, just think of nouns. For example:

  • road salt runoff
  • human cloning
  • Captain Ahab

Next, make some claims about your topic by adding verbs. These might not end up being true—that’s okay!

  • Road salt runoff is harmful to plants.
  • Human cloning is more likely to damage than enhance human life.
  • Captain Ahab should be understood as a tragic hero.

You now have potential thesis statements. The thesis—a claim to be proved or disproved by factual evidence and persuasive argument—is what drives most research. Once you’ve decided on a thesis, begin researching it as a question:

  • Is road salt runoff harmful to plants?
  • What are the most likely consequences of human cloning?
  • Can Ahab be understood as heroic?

Background Research

If you know very little about your topic, it can be hard to search for resources in library databases. You won’t know the best terms to use nor will you have the context necessary to evaluate what you find. You can solve this problem with a little background research.

Look up your topic in an encyclopedia (or even Wikipedia) to get a general feel for the topic. Write down important words and phrases. If your reference source lists citations that look interesting, jot those down and look for them later.

A quick Google search is also a good idea. It may or may not give you sources that you’ll cite in your paper, but it might turn up some general information articles on your topic or even current events that relate to it.