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Academic Research : The Research Process

Step 1: Understand Your Project

Start at the Beginning: 

Start with the tools and information you've been given:

  • Syllabus
  • Detailed Assignment Instructions
  • Grading Rubric

Your syllabus will outline the requirements of your paper or project, and your professor may provide additional detailed assignment instructions.  Carefully read these.  Make sure you understand what the assignment is, what the professor is asking for, and what is required.

Look at the rubric for the assignment.  What does an "A" assignment look like compared to a "B" or "D" assignment. 
How many references are needed?  What style guide should you be following? Etc. 

Ask Questions:

If you are uncertain about something, ask.  Reach out to your professor or a librarian for assistance. 

Step 2: Focus Your Project

Define the Scope of the Project:

The scope and focus of your paper or project will depend on the assignment requirements, but here is where you answer the question "what do I want to find out?"  Identify your Thesis Statement or Research Question.

Thesis Statement/Research Question: This is the main point of your project or paper.  This is the fundamental question you will be researching.  Remember to start broad and narrow your topic as you go.  It is easier to narrow your focus than to broaden it out.

Start Your Preliminary Search:

Here is where you will need to gather the basic information about your topic.  Make sure you have a firm understanding of the subject before you dive into your research.  This is a perfect time to do a quick Google search and see what the Wikipedia page has to say about the topic you've chosen.  

Remember: Wikipedia is a great place to start your research and find background information.  Just make sure you aren't ending your research here. 

Step 3: Gather Resources

Find Your Resources and Materials:

Start your research by locating what resources (books, articles, etc.) you want to include.  And remember, you can use the materials you found during your preliminary search as well.  Be mindful of the types of materials your professor is asking for.  If they require something special or unique, make sure it is included in your resources and references. 

InterLibrary Loan: If you cannot find the information you are looking for in the McGovern Library's collections, request it through InterLibrary Loans.  Just remember that it takes a little while to receive the materials, so request them early!

Read What You Find: 

Don't let the length of academic materials overwhelm you.  Use the information you gathered during your preliminary search to pinpoint what you are looking for.  When reading materials, look for major topics and sections that connect to your research, background information that expands your knowledge, and specific chapters and sections that address what you need.

And you don't need to read every word.  Skim first: find the information and sections that look interesting and connect to your topic, and then read those sections.

Step 4: Take Notes

Take Notes (lots of notes):

As you read through your research materials, take notes.  Add the information gathered into an outline to organize both you thoughts and you project or paper.  A 5 Point Outline is a basic and easy way to stay organized.  You can add more main points (for longer papers) and add subpoints to expand each main point.  Check out the 5 point outline below.

  1. Introduction
  2. Main Point 1
  3. Main Point 2
  4. Main Point 3
  5. Conclusion

Cite As You Go:

The easiest way to ensure you remember to give credit to every source you used, is to cite as you go.  Don't wait until the very end to create your citations.  Every time you pull a direct quote, paraphrase or summarize, and use others' ideas, make sure you create a citation.

Step 5: Create An Outline

Create a Basic Outline:

This was mentioned in Step 4, and is such an important part of the research process that it deserves it's own step.  There are several ways to outline a paper (and your professor might even provide you with an outline to follow). 

An outline serves many purposes.  It organizes you paper or project into main point, keeps you on track, and helps you to create a well rounded final product.

5 Point Outline:

  1. Introduction
  2. Main Point 1
  3. Main Point 2
  4. Main Point 3
  5. Conclusion

Develop Your Main Points:

As you read through the materials you gathered, take note on the areas that are being covered over and over again.  Will these points help to drive your Thesis Statement forward?  If you are writing a persuasive paper, these are often the key points to your argument.  If you are writing an analysis, these are often your key themes.  You should know roughly what your main points will be when you start gathering your research, but main points can develop and change as you work through your research.  That's okay.  Expand your developed main points in an expanded outline.

Expanded 5 Point Outline:

  1. Introduction
  2. Main Point 1
    • Detail 1 / Supporting Evidence 
    • Detail 2 / Supporting Evidence 
  3. Main Point 2
    • Detail 1 / Supporting Evidence  
    • Detail 2 / Supporting Evidence 
  4. Main Point 3
    • Detail 1 / Supporting Evidence 
    • Detail 2 / Supporting Evidence 
  5. Conclusion

Step 6: Start the Writing Process

Add Your Thoughts and Perspective:

You've taken notes.  You've created an outline.  Now it is time to write your paper.  Use your outline as the skeleton of your paper, adding in your research notes.  And this is where you make your paper YOURS.  Add in your own voice, ideas, and perspectives, making the reader care about the information you have found.  

Helpful Tip: Don't write your introduction and conclusion until the end.  Develop the body of your paper, referencing back to the argument you make in your thesis statement.  It is easiest to create your introduction and conclusion paragraphs when you have the rest of your paper to reference. 

Assess Your Work:

As you write, you will notice some areas of your paper make a lot of sense and seem really good, while other areas do not.  You most likely have noticed:

  • This is no longer a major section and should be added to another section.
  • This is a major section, but needs to be developed and expanded further.
  • You are missing something that your research is pointing to.
  • There is an area you should continue to research and work within.

Realizing these points is perfectly natural and okay.  Go back to your outline and rearrange as needed so you can edit and incorporate new information without starting over.  The trick to a great paper or project is to critically examine all aspects of your work. 

Step 7: Gather Additional Information

What Are You Missing?:

As you write and compile the information you have gathered along with your own thoughts, you will start to see where there are gaps in your research.  That's okay and to be expected.  If you can, gather the information needed from the sources you have already gathered and used.  Often, you will need to do a new search and add another source or two to fill in this information gap.

Go back to the original assignment instructions and double check to make sure you have included everything that was required.  If you are missing anything, add it in now.  If you need help finding additional and specific resources, reach out to the librarians for assistance. 

When you have gathered this information, go back to Steps 3 and 4 (Gather Resources and Take Notes) to incorporate these new materials.  And remember to add them into your outline as well.

Continue Writing:

Now you should have all of the materials and information needed to finish up your rough draft.  You've located any additional information and have finished drafting your paper.  Next is to rewrite and rework to make sure everything makes sense and connects together, supporting your thesis statement.

Don't Forget: Remember to write your introduction and conclusion.  Wrap everything up and ensure it connects throughout.  Read through your paper to make sure your thoughts flow and make sense.  Reading your work out loud will help to catch any funky bits that you might have missed when reading through the first time.  

Step 8: Finishing Touches


You are almost there!  Your thoughts and arguments make sense, but you will still need to make sure your spelling and grammar are on par.  Get rid of filler words and conjunctions.  Once you've edited you work yourself, bring it to the Academic Success Center's tutors to get another set of eyes to read your paper. 

Use a Citation Style Guide: Check out the Citing Sources guide to make sure your paper is formatted correctly and your citations are correct.  Also, make sure your in-text citations are correct and every in-text citation has a fully cited source at the end of your paper in the bibliography/reference/works cited page.

Turn It In:

You've made it!  Your paper or project can be submitted and you can be proud of your final work.

Final Note:

If at any point you have questions, ask your professor or the librarians.  We're here to help.  Just because this guide is available doesn't mean the library staff won't take the time to show you the finer points, or walk you through a section that doesn't make sense.  If at any point in the process above you fell like you're getting stuck, let us know.  A librarian's job is to help get you unstuck!

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