How to Get Started With a Research Project
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You'll be required to undertake and complete research projects throughout your academic career and even, in many cases, as a member of the workforce. Don't worry if you feel stuck or intimidated by the idea of a research project, with care and dedication, you can get the project done well before the deadline!
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- Brainstorm an idea or identify a problem or question. No matter how much guidance the assignment provides, an integral part of nearly any research project is allowing each researcher to come up with their own idea. You need to identify a problem in your chosen field that needs to be solved or answer a question that has not yet been answered. At this stage, a pen and piece of paper are your best friends. Without worrying about structure or format, start writing down ideas – anything you're interested in, really, as long as it falls within the bounds of the assigned project's guidelines. At this stage its worth remembering that the more interest you have in a given topic, the easier it will be to push through any obstacles that may crop up when trying to complete the project.
Chris Hadley, PhD is part of the wikiHow team and works on content strategy and data and analytics. Chris Hadley earned his PhD in Cognitive Psychology from UCLA in 2006. Chris' academic research has been published in numerous scientific journals.Chris Hadley, PhD
- Don't hesitate while writing down ideas. You'll end up with some mental noise on the paper – silly or nonsensical phrases that your brain just pushes out. That's fine. Think of it as sweeping the cobwebs out of your attic. After a minute or two, better ideas will begin to form (and you might have a nice little laugh at your own expense in the meantime).
PhD in Cognitive Psychology, University of Oregon
Choose a topic that genuinely interests you. Chris Hadley, PhD in Psychology, tells us: "A good research question should address something that the researcher is curious about. Effective research typically requires sustained, careful focus, and persistence. It’s a lot easier and more enjoyable to do this work when the topic of your research is intrinsically interesting to you."
- Use the tools you've already been given. If you just can't seem to brainstorm anything very interesting, and you've been given a vague and unhelpful prompt, your next best bet is to review a textbook or lecture notes. Skim over them and look for subjects you found interesting. You can even flip open a textbook to the index, pick an interesting-sounding term or name, and go from there. Another extremely useful tool is a journal. These are periodicals collecting research in a specific field. So if for example, you were looking for a topic in radiology, you may want to look at a few issues of Radiology- the journal of the American College of Radiology.
- Look at what others have done. If you are doing this in partial fulfillment of a university course or honors degree programme, it's worth checking out what research topics were covered by other students over previous years. Sometimes you may be lucky enough to find ready-made suggestions at the end of the project which the author has made in their recommendations for further research. You may also be able to change the topic slightly to come up with a new project. This has the advantage of providing a ready-made, tried and tested, robust methodology for your project.
- Some instructors will even provide samples of previously successful topics if you ask for them. Just be careful that you don't end up stuck with an idea you want to do, but are afraid to do because you know someone else did it before.
- Think from all angles. If you have at least a little direction based on the project guidelines, take that basic direction and start turning it over and over in your mind. Write down everything you come up with on paper, even if it doesn't seem viable. Start with obvious approaches, and then try to think about other questions that are indirectly related to the main thrust of your guidelines. Keep adding items until you can't think of any more.
- For example, if your research topic is “urban poverty,” you could look at that topic across ethnic or sexual lines, but you could also look into corporate wages, minimum wage laws, the cost of medical benefits, the loss of unskilled jobs in the urban core, and on and on. You could also try comparing and contrasting urban poverty with suburban or rural poverty, and examine things that might be different about both areas, such as diet and exercise levels, or air pollution.
- Synthesize specific topics. You can combine a few or several different parameters to create concrete questions that will give your research some direction. Continuing with the previous example, you might look at the dietary habits of the rural poor with the urban poor, cross-checking against the habits of well-to-do people to get an idea of whether a diet is influenced more by money or environment, and to what extent.
- Visualize in your mind at this stage what kind of methodology you are going to use i.e. how are you going to collect data. Methodology (is the meat of the project and you don't want to commit to a topic which will not have a feasible methodology or one that may require funding beyond your means (this is specifically aimed at undergraduates with limited resources (poor students lacking both time and money!) who are likely going to have to self fund their projects) . This may appear to be jumping the gun a bit, but you'll be glad you didn't waste time on projects that you could not have completed on time.
- Think in terms of questions you want answered. A good research project should collect information for the purpose of answering (or at least attempting to answer) a question. As you review and interconnect topics, you'll think of questions that don't seem to have clear answers yet. These questions are your research topics.
- Brush across information you have access to. Now that you have a handful of concrete research ideas that interest you, take your favorite and do a little preliminary research. If you're finding the information you might be able to use, stick with that topic; if there seems to be no useful research at all, you'll either have to perform original research or change topics. Don't be afraid to take a gamble if there is research but it seems a bit thin – often, those are the areas where more attention is sorely needed, and your paper will draw some attention in the right direction if nothing else.
- Don't limit yourself to libraries and online databases. Think in terms of outside resources as well: primary sources, government agencies, even educational TV programs. If you want to know about differences in animal population between public land and an Indian reservation, call the reservation and see if you can speak to their department of fish and wildlife.
- If you're planning to go ahead with original research, that's great – but those techniques aren't covered in this article. Instead, speak with qualified advisors and work with them to set up a thorough, controlled, repeatable process for gathering information.
- Clearly define your project. Now that you've narrowed the field and chosen a research question to pursue, it's time to get a bit more formal. Write down your research question, and then briefly note the steps you plan to take to get it answered. Finally, at the bottom of the page, write down each possible answer to the topic question. There are usually three potential answers: it's one way, it's the other way, or it doesn't seem to make any difference.
- If your plan comes down to “researching the topic,” and there aren't any more specific things you can say about it, write down the types of sources you plan to use instead: books (library or private?), magazines (which ones?), interviews, and so on. Your preliminary research should have given you a solid idea of where to begin.
Expanding Your Idea with Research
- Start with the basics. That means just going out and researching. If you spend time creating a close outline of your presentation paper, you're most likely wasting that time, as the research you gather might not fit neatly into every slot. Instead, start with your school's library (or the local public library). Spend time collecting stacks of books and skimming them for valuable information until you've exhausted those resources. Keep an open notebook or a portable device with a notepad on hand, and copy down everything you might use verbatim.
- It's generally considered more convincing to source one item from three different authors who all agree on it than it is to rely too heavily on one book. Go for quantity at least as much as quality. Be sure to check citations, endnotes, and bibliographies to get more potential sources (and see whether or not all your authors are just quoting the same, older author).
- Writing down your sources and any other relevant details (such as context) around your pieces of information right now will save you lots of trouble in the future.
- Move outward. Once you have good information from your local resources, use whatever tools you have access to gather more from online databases such as JSTOR. If you're a college student, chances are you've got free access to many of these resources through your school; if not, you might have to pay to subscribe to some of them. This is also the time to do general online research, at sites with reputable information such as government agencies or respected nonprofit organizations.
- Use many different queries to get the database results you want. If one phrasing or a particular set of words doesn't yield useful results, try rephrasing it or using synonymous terms. Online academic databases tend to be dumber than the sum of their parts, so you'll have to use tangentially related terms and inventive language to get all the results you want.
- Gather unusual sources. By now, you should have more information written down (and properly sourced) than you can possibly use in one paper. This is the time to get creative and really breathe life into your project. Visit museums and historical societies for records that can't be reviewed anywhere else. Speak to respected professors for academic information you can use as a primary source; call and speak to leaders and professionals in fields related to your topic.
- If it's sensible, consider heading out into the field and speaking to ordinary people for their opinions. This isn't always appropriate (or welcomed) in a research project, but in some cases, it can provide you with some excellent perspective for your research.
- Review cultural artifacts as well. In many areas of study, there's useful information on attitudes, hopes, and/or concerns of people in a particular time and place contained within the art, music, and writing they produced. One has only to look at the woodblock prints of the later German Expressionists, for example, to understand that they lived in a world they felt was often dark, grotesque, and hopeless. Song lyrics and poetry can likewise express strong popular attitudes.
- Review and trim. By this point, you should have a lot of research on hand, well-cataloged and at least somewhat sorted. Review all of it through the lens of your research question, looking for answers or partial answers to it. Read between the lines, as well – use context, source age, and other background information to inform your quest for understanding. With any luck, you should have more than enough to suggest and support one answer over the others. Go through all your sources one more time and set aside any that won't be directly useful to your project. From here, all that's left is to put your information into a sensible format, apply your own interpretation to it, and prepare it for presentation.
- Start early. The foundation of a great research project is the research, which takes time and patience to gather even if you aren't performing any original research of your own. Set aside time for it whenever you can, at least until your initial gathering phase is complete. Past that point, the project should practically come together on its own.
- When in doubt, write more, rather than less. It's easier to pare down and reorganize an overabundance of information than it is to puff up a flimsy core of facts and anecdotes.
- Respect the wishes of others. Unless you're a research journalist, it's vital that you yield to the wishes and requests of others before engaging in original research, even if it's technically ethical. Many older American Indians, for instance, harbor a great deal of cultural resentment towards social scientists who visit reservations for research, even those invited by tribal governments for important reasons such as language revitalization. Always tread softly whenever you're out of your element, and only work with those who want to work with you.
- Be mindful of ethical concerns. Especially if you plan to use original research, there are very stringent ethical guidelines that must be followed for any credible academic body to accept it. Speak to an advisor (such as a professor) about what you plan to do and what steps you should take to verify that it will be ethical.
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