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How to Do Research in 7 Simple Steps

It’s 2 am, and you’re on your fifth cup of coffee (or was it your sixth?). You’re crouched at a table in some dark corner of the library surrounded by fifteen open books. Equally as many tabs are open on your laptop, and you still haven’t written a word of the paper that’s due in 7 hours.

Many things can explain how you got to this point, including procrastination, poor organization, and a messy schedule.

Very often, however, the problem is a lack of research skills.

And it’s not your fault. High school does a poor job of teaching you how to do research, and most college classes do little better. It feels like you’re expected to figure it out through trial and error.

I think we can do better than that, however. In this guide, I’m going to show you the 7-step process for researching everything from a 10-page term paper to a final presentation. Not only will you learn how to do better research; you’ll also learn how to research more efficiently.

What Is Research?

Before we go any further, what is research?

At its core, research is an attempt to answer a question. This could be anything from “How can we reduce infant mortality rates?” to “Why does salt make food taste good?”

To answer your question, you consult books, academic papers, newspaper articles, historical records, or anything else that could be helpful. The broad term for these things is “sources.”

And, usually, once you’ve done the research, you present or summarize it in some way. In many cases, this means writing an essay or another type of scholarly paper, but it could also mean giving a presentation or even creating a YouTube video.

Even if you have no interest in academia, research is an extremely useful skill to learn. When you know how to do research, it’s much easier to improve your life and work more effectively. Instead of having to ask someone every time you have a question, research will help you solve problems yourself (and help others in turn).

Note: Research can also mean conducting surveys, performing experiments, or going on archaeological digs. While these activities are crucial for advancing human knowledge, I won’t be discussing them here. This article focuses on the research you can do with only a library and an internet connection.

The 7 Steps of the Research Process

Research can feel overwhelming, but it’s more manageable when you break it down into steps. In my experience, the research process has seven main steps:

  1. Find a topic
  2. Refine your topic
  3. Find key sources
  4. Take notes on your sources
  5. Create your paper or presentation
  6. Do additional research as necessary
  7. Cite your sources

Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.

1. Find a Topic

If you don’t have a topic, your research will be undirected and inefficient. You’ll spend hours reading dozens of sources, all because you didn’t take a few minutes to develop a topic.

How do you come up with a topic? My number one suggestion is to create a mind map.

A mind map is a visual way to generate ideas. Here’s how it works:

  1. Get a piece of paper and a pen. Make sure the paper isn’t too small — you want lots of room for your ideas.
  2. Draw an oval in the center of the paper.
  3. Inside that oval, write a super vague topic. Start with whatever your professor has assigned you.
  4. Draw lines from the oval towards the edges of the paper.
  5. Draw smaller ovals connected to each of these lines.
  6. Inside the smaller ovals, write more specific ideas/topics related to the central one.
  7. Repeat until you’ve found 3-5 topic ideas.

When I write it out step by step, it sounds kind of strange. But trust me, it works. Anytime I’m stuck on a writing assignment, this method is my go-to. It’s basically magic.

To see what mind mapping looks like in practice, check out this clip:

Want to create a digital mind map like the one Thomas uses in the video? Check out Coggle.

2. Refine Your Topic

Okay, so now you have a list of 3-5 topics. They’re all still pretty general, and you need to narrow them down to one topic that you can research in depth.

To do this, spend 15 minutes doing some general research on each topic. Specifically, take each topic and plug it into your library’s catalog and database search tools.

The details of this process will vary from library to library. This is where consulting a librarian can be super helpful. They can show you how to use the tools I mentioned, as well as point you to some you probably don’t know about.

Furthermore, I suggest you ask your professor for recommendations. In some cases, they may even have created a resource page specifically for your assignment.

Once you’ve found out where to search, type in your topic. I like to use a mixture of the library catalog, a general academic database like EBSCO Host, and a search on Google Scholar.


What exactly are you trying to find? Basically, you’re trying to find a topic with a sufficient quantity and variety of sources.

Ideally, you want something with both journal articles and books, as this demonstrates that lots of scholars are seriously engaging with the topic.

Of course, in some cases (if the topic is very cutting edge, for example), you may be only able to find journal articles. That’s fine, so long as there are enough perspectives available.

Using this technique, you’ll be able to quickly eliminate some topics. Be ruthless. If you’re not finding anything after 15 minutes, move on. And don’t get attached to a topic.

Tip: If you find two topics with equal numbers of sources available, ask your professor to help you break the tie. They can give you insight into which topic is super common (and thus difficult to write about originally), as well as which they find more interesting.

Now that you have your topic, it’s time to narrow down your sources.

3. Find Key Sources

If you’ve picked a good topic, then you probably have lots of sources to work with. This is both a blessing and a curse. A variety of sources shows that there’s something worth saying about your topic, and it also gives you plenty of material to cite.

But this abundance can quickly turn into a nightmare in which you spend hours reading dense, mind-numbing material without getting any closer to actually producing a paper.

How do you keep this from happening? Choose 3–5  key sources and focus on them intently. Sure, you may end up needing more sources, especially if this is a long paper or if the professor requires it. But if you start out trying to read 15 sources, you’re likely to get overwhelmed and frustrated.

Focusing on a few key sources is powerful because it:

  • Lets you engage deeply with each source.
  • Gives you a variety of perspectives.
  • Points you to further resources.
  • Keeps you focused.

4. Read and Take Notes

But what do you do with these sources, exactly? You need to read them the right way. Follow these steps to effectively read academic books and articles:


Go through the article and look at the section headings. If any words or terms jump out at you, make note of them. Also, glance at the beginning sentences of each section and paragraph to get an overall idea of the author’s argument.

The goal here isn’t to comprehend deeply, but to prime your mind for effective reading.


Write down any questions you have after skimming the article, as well as any general questions you hope the article can answer. Always keep your topic in mind.

Read Actively

Now, start reading. But don’t just passively go through the information like you’re scrolling through Tumblr. Read with a pen or pencil in hand, underlining any unfamiliar terms or interesting ideas.

Make notes in the margins about other sources or concepts that come to mind. If you’re reading a library book, you can make notes on a separate piece of paper.


Once you’ve finished reading, take a short break. Have a cup of tea or coffee. Go for a walk around the library. Stretch. Just get your mind away from the research for a moment without resorting to distracting, low-density fun.


Now come back to the article and look at the things you underlined or noted. Gather these notes and transfer them to a program like Evernote.

If you need to look up a term, do that, and then add that definition to your notes. Also, make note of any sources the author cites that look helpful.

But what if I’m reading a book? Won’t this take forever? No, because you’re not going to read the entire book.

For most research you’ll do in college, reading a whole academic book is overkill. Just skim the table of contents and the book itself to find chapters or sections that look relevant.

Then, read each of those in the same way you would read an article. Also, be sure to glance at the book’s bibliography, which is a goldmine for finding additional sources.

Note: The above method is a variation on the classic SQ3R method, adapted slightly since we’re not interested in taking notes from textbooks.

5. Create Your Paper or Presentation

“You can’t turn in raw research.”

Research is crucial to crafting a great paper or presentation, but it’s also a great way to procrastinate. I had classmates in college who would spend 8 hours researching a 5-page paper. That’s way too much!

At some point, you need to stop researching and start writing (or whatever method you’re using to present your research).

How do you decide when to stop researching? There’s no strict rule, but in general I wouldn’t spend more than 30 minutes per page of the final paper.

So if the final paper is supposed to be 10 pages, don’t spend more than 5 hours researching it.

6. Do Additional Research (As Necessary)

Once you’ve started writing the draft of your paper, you’ll probably find a few gaps. Maybe you realize that one scholar’s argument isn’t relevant to your paper, or that you need more information for a particular section. In this case, you are free to return to researching as necessary.

But again, beware the trap of procrastination masquerading as productivity! Only do as much additional research as you need to answer your question. Don’t get pulled into rabbit holes or dragged off on tangents. Get in there, do your research, and get back to writing.

To keep yourself focused, I suggest keeping a separate document or piece of paper nearby to note points that need additional research.

Every time you encounter such a point, make note of it in the document and then keep writing. Only stop when you can’t get any further without additional research.

It’s much better to get a full draft done first. Otherwise, you risk suffering a cognitive switching penalty, making it harder to regain your focus.

7. Cite Your Sources

Whether you’re creating an oral presentation, essay, or video, you’ll need to cite your sources. Plagiarism is a serious offense, so don’t take any chances.

How to cite your sources depends on the subject and the professor’s expectations. Chicago, MLA, and APA are the most common citation formats to use in college, but there are thousands more.

Luckily, you don’t need to painstakingly type each of your citations by hand or slog through a style manual. Instead, you can use a tool like Zotero to track and generate your citations. To make things even easier, install the Zotero Connector browser extension. It can automatically pull citation information from entries in an online library catalog.

Once you’ve collected all of your sources, Zotero can generate a properly formatted works cited page or bibliography at just the click of a button.

For help setting up and using Zotero, read this guide. If you need further assistance, ask a librarian.

Go Research With Confidence

I hope you now understand how to do research with more confidence. If you follow the procedures I’ve covered in this article, you’ll waste less time, perform more effective research, and ultimately have the material for a winning essay.

Curious about how to use your research to write a great research paper? Check out this guide.

Image Credits: picking book from shelf