Picture this: It’s 2 am, and you’re on your fifth cup of coffee (or was it the 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 the clock seems to tick in time with the blinking cursor in the document of your barely begun 10-page paper that’s due in seven hours.
Sound familiar? I know I’ve been there. I hope you haven’t, but I bet you’ve at least been in a similar situation. There are a lot of things that can explain how you got to this point, including procrastination, poor organization, and a messy schedule.
But I think, very often, the problem is also a lack of research skills. I know that my formal training in the actual mechanics of library research was limited to a couple 1-hour sessions my freshman year. Beyond that, I just had to figure most of it out through trial and error.
But between writing dozens of research papers and a senior thesis for my liberal arts degree, as well as my current career as a freelance writer (which is really just another way of saying “professional researcher”), I’ve developed a solid set of research skills.
Today, I’m going to share what I’ve learned. I’ll show you how to use the library to find a topic, research the heck out of it, and then get to writing as quickly as possible, all without wasting time.
So head on over to your local library, and let’s begin!
Before we go any further, let’s get clear on how I’m defining research for the purpose of this article.
The research I’m describing:
- Uses primarily written material. Okay, sure, you might be using some videos, images, or other media as well. The important distinction is that I’m not talking about research where you’re performing experiments, conducting studies, or looking at a collection of dinosaur bones. That sort of stuff is out of my depth.
- Is highly directed. Which is to say, it’s for the purpose of completing a specific academic assignment, not to develop a large scholarly project or write a book.
- Is academic. Related to the above idea, I’m talking about research for classes. If you’re trying to research a business idea, I suggest this guide.
- Will help you find a topic. When you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know what to write about,” research is the place to start.
- Will help you defend an argument. Once you’ve found your topic and developed an argument around it, research will help you find evidence to support it.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to my general research philosophy.
When it comes to research, the name of the game is this: efficiently and effectively. Let’s explore each of these ideas in a bit more detail.
When researching, it’s very easy to get bogged down in the details and waste lots of time. This can take many forms, but some of the most common ways to procrastinate while researching include:
- Reading every footnote in a book or article.
- Googling different variations of the paper topic for an hour.
- Browsing every shelf of the relevant section in the library.
- Checking out every possible book on the topic.
- Chatting with the student working the help desk.
As much as the above activities may look like research, they’re not. They’re just cleverly disguised forms of procrastination. I’ll get to how to research efficiently in the following sections, but for now, just remember: efficiency is your motto.
In essence, this means that the research you’re doing is actually useful for your paper. Once again, it’s easiest to demonstrate by giving examples of ineffective research:
- Reading only one source on the topic (at best, your paper will have weak evidence; at worst, it could look like plagiarism).
- Starting research too late (when you’ve already written most of the paper).
- Staring research too early (when you don’t have even a vague idea of your topic).
- Only consulting one type of source (for example, only reading books when there are also articles available).
- Considering a source out of context (when and where it was written, what broader intellectual movement/scholarly undertaking it was part of, what biases the author might have).
As you can imagine, there’s some overlap between research that is inefficient and ineffective. One is often symptomatic of the other, and one can often lead to the other.
But don’t worry: after reading the following sections, you’ll be doing research that’s both efficient and effective.
If you don’t have a vague topic for your paper, your research will be undirected and highly inefficient. You’ll spend hours reading dozens of sources because you didn’t take 30 minutes to develop a topic.
How do you come up with a topic? I covered this technique somewhat in my article on how to write a paper, but that was over two years ago. I’ve learned a few things since then (I hope).
My number one suggestion for finding a topic these days is to create a mind map. A mind map is a visual way to take notes or generate ideas. Here’s the technique:
- Get a piece of paper and a pen. Make sure the paper isn’t too small–you want lots of room for your ideas.
- Draw an oval in the center of the paper.
- Inside that oval, write a super vague topic. Most professors will provide you with this in the form of the paper assignment.
- From the oval, draw radiating lines toward the edges of the paper.
- Connect another smaller oval to each of these lines.
- Inside the smaller ovals, write more specific ideas/topics related to the central one.
- 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 or business question, this method is my go to. It’s basically magic.
Check out the below section of Thomas’s note taking video for an illustration:
Now that you have your 3-5 topics, it’s time to start researching.
Okay, so now you have a list of 3-5 topics. They’re all still pretty general, and you need to narrow down to one topic to research in depth. How do you do this? Spend 15 minutes researching each topic. Specifically, what you’re going to do is 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, as well as pointing you to some you probably don’t know about. For example, my college has a dedicated resource page for each major with a list relevant of databases and other research tools.
Furthermore, I suggest you ask your professor where they recommend you start. In some cases, they may even have created a resource page specifically for your class.
Once you’ve found out where to search, you need to take your topic and plug it in. I like to use a mixture of the library catalog, a few specific databases I think will be relevant, and a search on Google Scholar.
What exactly am I looking for when I search? Basically, I’m trying to find a topic that yields sufficient quantity and variety of sources. Ideally, I 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 different 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. Don’t get attached to a topic. Your job at this point is to narrow your focus so that you can move on to more directed research.
Tip: If you find two topics with equal amounts of research available, I’d suggest you 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 most interesting.
Plus, asking them these sorts of questions will show that you’re taking the research process seriously. This won’t raise your grade per se, but it will create a favorable impression overall, which never hurts when you need something like a letter of recommendation or an extension on an assignment.
Now that you have your one topic, it’s time to start the heavy duty research.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. Your research efforts are already more focused than the majority of your peers’. But you can’t stop here. Now that you have your topic, you need to do the deep research that will help you craft a compelling argument.
When I say “argument,” I don’t mean the fight you and your roommate had yesterday about whose turn it was to take out the trash. In this context, I mean the thing that your essay is trying to convince the reader (i.e., your professor). The art of crafting an academic argument is beyond the scope of this post, but in general, you want to make sure your argument is:
- Specific. This is the difference between, The Roman empire fell because of many factors and The Roman empire fell because of a complacent, corrupt bureaucracy.
- Contestable. That is, someone could disagree with it and offer a counter-argument. Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the United States Constitution, for example, is not an argument.
- Defensible. That is, you can back it up with scholarly sources. The stars in the sky are for show and the aliens are watching live is not an argument, since there aren’t any scholars claiming that (Tweet at me if you get the reference).
- Somewhat original. As an undergrad, no one is expecting you to perform groundbreaking scholarship, especially not in a ten page research paper. But you should try to find an argument that is at least an interesting combination or formulation of existing ideas in your field. Something that might even make your professor say, “Wow, I’d never thought of it that way before.”
Proper research technique will ensure that your argument is all of the above. So let’s get into the nuts and bolts.
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 demonstrates 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 of spending 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 starting with reading 15 sources is just going to be overwhelming and frustrating. 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.
But what do you do with these sources, exactly? You need to read them the right way. Here are my steps for approaching any academic book or article and extracting the maximum value from it:
- Skim. Go through the article and look for section headings or other structure. If any words or terms jump out at you, note those as well. Glance at the beginning sentences of each section and paragraph. The goal here isn’t to comprehend deeply, but to prime your mind for effective reading.
- Question. Write down any questions you have after skimming the article, as well as any general questions you hope the article can answer.
- 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.
- Rest. 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.
- Summarize. Now come back to the article and look at the things you underlined or noted. Gather these notes and transfer them to a text document. If you need to look up a term, do that, and then make note of what you found in the same document. Also, make note of any sources the author cites that look worth a further read.
But what if I’m reading a book? you may ask. Won’t this take forever? No, because you’re not going to read the entire book. Remember, efficiency is essential here.
For a paper of this length, 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, as this is a goldmine for finding additional sources.
Rinse, Repeat, and Write
“You can’t turn in raw research.”
Now, repeat the above procedure for your other sources until you have a big document of material. Also, repeat it for any further sources you find. The result should be more than enough to help you really focus your argument. You’ll probably start to see some patterns and ideas for how to structure your paper.
But you don’t want to take this too far. It’s easy to spend days researching without actually doing any writing. At a certain point, you need to step away from the shelves and databases and write the frickin’ paper. Because remember, you can’t turn in raw research.
How do you decide when to step away? 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 ten pages, don’t spend more than 5 hours researching it.
And remember, I’m talking about 5 hours of super efficient, effective research, not flipping through books while checking Tinder every ten minutes.
If you’re having trouble staying focused during the writing process, check out Thomas’s video on writing apps and websites.
Do Additional Research Only as Necessary
“It’s much better to get a full draft done first.”
Once you’ve started writing the draft of your paper, you’ll probably find a few gaps. Maybe you realize that this one scholar’s argument isn’t really relevant to your paper, or that you need more background 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 help keep you 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.
While writing this article, for example, I realized that I needed to learn more about the SQ3R method and see if CIG had any videos related to essay writing. Instead of pulling my focus away from the writing to research these questions, I noted them for later. 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.
To make your research even more efficient and effective, here are some tools I suggest:
- Zotero – This is a tool for managing sources and citations. When you’re working on a long paper with lots of sources, it’s a huge boon to your sanity. Plus, it can automatically generate citations in the style of your choice, and it includes a browser extension that can automatically extract key citation data from an entry in an online library catalog.
- Google Scholar – A good place to start finding digital sources.
- EBSCO Host – A massive, searchable collection of academic databases. You need a subscription to use it, but I guarantee your college has one. Ask a college librarian about how to gain access.
- Evernote – My program of choice for taking notes and keeping lists of topic ideas, as well as for organizing notes I take while reading.
- A quality pen or pencil – Crucial for underlining and taking notes in articles. Note that if you’re using a library book, just photocopy the pages you want to annotate.
As you can see, the research process isn’t always straightforward. But 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.
What advice do you have for research? And what questions do you still have after reading this article? Share them in the comments section below, or bring them up in the College Info Geek Community.