Starting your Research

The Research Process

Research is a complicated process and can be intimidating when you haven't had much experience with it. It's a little easier to manage if you follow these steps.

It's important to remember that the research process doesn't always go smoothly. You may have to go back and refine or change your topic or search strategies as you work. You might discover that your ideas about a topic were wrong. You might end up finding the resources you selected aren't appropriate and have to try again. Those are all parts of the research process. 

Getting Organized

Before you start your research you might want to get a reference manager like Zotero or Mendeley. Both are free programs that store information about the books, journal articles, websites, and other information sources you'll use. With Zotero or Mendeley, you can annotate your sources, create citations in any style, and create bibliographies quickly and easily.

You might also want to consider keeping a research log. You can use a research log to record search terms, databases, results, and anything else you think might be helpful. Keeping track of your research will help you improve your searches by showing you the most effective terms and databases for your topic. It will also prevent you from repeating searches you've already tried. You can make a research log in whatever format you prefer. Here's an example:

Picking a topic

Picking a good research topic can be a challenge! There are no rules for choosing a topic or developing a thesis, but the following approach may help:

Start by listing subjects that are appropriate to the assignment and that interest you. If you're stuck, think about ideas you've discussed in class, current events, things you may have heard on the radio, or ask your professor for help. At this stage, you should be thinking in nouns. For example:
  • reality television
  • human cloning
  • Captain Ahab
Next, make some claims about your topic by adding verbs. These might not end up being true, and that's ok.
  • Reality television is therapeutic for viewers
  • 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 reality television more than entertainment?
  • What are the most likely consequences of human cloning?
  • Can Ahab be understood as heroic?

Creating a Search Strategy

Once you're ready to start searching, it's time to create a search strategy. Being thoughtful at this stage will save you time in the future. Make a list of keywords that have to do with your subject. Be sure to think about other ways to phrase your topic. The specific words you search for matter. If you're not seeing enough results, or not seeing the right results, you might have better luck searching for synonyms or related words. 

This part can be challenging if you don't know much about your topic yet. If you're having trouble thinking of words or phrases related to your topic, try doing some basic background research. Look up your topic in an encyclopedia (or even Wikipedia) and write down important words and phrases. If your reference source lists citations, you'll probably want to follow them up. Sources like encyclopedias are a good way to start your research, but you want to use them as a tool to get to other information, not as your final research. 

Choosing Your Databases

Once you've got a topic and a strategy, you need to decide where to search for information. Some tools are better for finding specific types of information, so think about what type of information you want. 



Argos searches books, multimedia, and articles available from the library, either online or in the building. Argos can be a good place to start your research, but you'll get a lot of results!

Remember that you can use the limiters on the left side of any results screen to narrow down your search. For example, if you know you want a book, limit your search to books on your topic. For more on using Argos, check out our guide.

General Databases

If you're looking for peer-reviewed articles from scholarly journals, you might want to consider looking in database that contains articles from many disciplines. They're a great place to start if you're not as familiar with your topic or field. You may get more results than you need, but you'll get a sense of what's out there. General databases are also a great way to see what people in other disciplines are saying about your topic. Some good databases to start with are:
Academic Search Premier
General OneFile
ProQuest Research Library

Subject Databases

If you're looking for peer-reviewed articles or some specialized resources (datasets, statistics, etc) you'll probably want to be in a subject-specific database. As you learn more about a subject, you'll start to become familiar with related databases. If you're not sure which to use, you can check out our Subject Guides for some help.