4.2 The Academic Research Process

Gears showing the research process: define the topic, narrow the topic, gather background information, create a research question, develop a working thesis statement, find and evaluate sources, cite sources, and write the paper.

The academic research process is not a linear process in which you must complete step one before moving on to step two or three. You don’t need to put off writing your composition until you’ve gathered all of your sources. In fact, you may want to start writing as soon as possible and adjust your search, thesis statement, and writing as you continue to work through the research process. For that reason, consider the following research process as a guideline to follow as your work through your composition. You can (and should!) revisit the steps as many times as needed to create a finished product.

  1. Decide on the topic, or carefully consider the topic that has been assigned.
  2. Narrow the topic in order to narrow search parameters. When you go to a professional sports event, concert, or event at a large venue, your ticket has three items on it: the section, the row, and the seat number. You go in that specific order to pinpoint where you are supposed to sit. Similarly, when you decide on a topic, you often start large and must narrow the focus; you move from general subject, to a more limited topic, to a specific focus or issue.The reader does not want a cursory look at the topic; she wants to walk away with some newfound knowledge and deeper understanding of the issue. For that, details are essential. For example, suppose you want to explore the topic of autism. You might move from:
    • General topic: special needs in a classroom
    • Limited topic: autistic students in a classroom setting
    • Specific focus: how technology can enhance learning for autistic students
  3. Do background research, or preliminary research. Begin by figuring out what you know about the topic, and then fill in any gaps you may have on the basics by looking at more general sources. This is a place where general internet searches, such as on Google, will be most useful. Once you know the basics of the topic, start investigating that basic information for potential sources of conflict. Does there seem to be disagreement about particular aspects of the topic? For instance, if you’re looking at a Civil War battle, are there any parts of the battle that historians seem to argue about? Perhaps some point to one figure’s failing as a reason for a loss, and some point instead to another figure’s spectacular success as a reason his side won?
  4. Create a research question. Once you have narrowed your topic so that is manageable, it is time to generate research questions about your topic. Create thought-provoking, open-ended questions, ones that encourage debate. Decide which question addresses the issue that concerns you—that will be your main research question. Secondary questions will address the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the issue. As an example:
    • Main question: How do stereotypes of women in the media influence the people’s sense that women can be leaders?
    • Secondary questions: How can more women get involved in politics? Why aren’t more women involved in politics? What role do media play in discouraging women from being involved? How many women are involved in politics at a state or national level? How long do they typically stay in politics, and for what reasons do they leave?
  5. Develop a work thesis statement. “Answer” the main research question to create a working thesis statement. The thesis statement is a single sentence that identifies the topic and shows the direction of the paper while simultaneously allowing the reader to glean the writer’s stance on that topic. A “working” thesis statement is a preliminary statement that helps you articulate your current thinking on the topic and that puts you on track for continuing your research and writing your composition. A working thesis performs four main functions: (1) It narrows the subject to the single point that readers should understand; (2) it names the topic and makes a significant assertion about that topic; (3) it conveys the purpose; (4) it provides a preview of how the essay will be arranged (usually).
    Note: It is important to revisit your working thesis statement after you have found and reviewed your continuing research on your topic. Since you need to be able to prove your thesis to your audience, the final thesis statement you come up with should be a reflection of the evidence you have available from your research. Furthermore, when doing academic research you should be willing to let your mind be changed on the topic based on the preponderance of evidence you found in your research. If, after reviewing your research, your mind has changed about the topic or about how to answer your research question, then your working thesis statement should change to reflect this.
  6. Find and evaluate sources, looking for those that will best help you answer your research question and refine your working thesis statement. Make sure you are using credible and relevant sources. Read them and reflect on how the information may change how you understand your research question and your thesis statement.
  7. Create a bibliography as you gather sources. You can write these citations using a style handbook or by using reference management programs like Zotero, Mendeley, or EndNote. Sometimes research library databases supply bibliographic citations for you. You then simply need to copy and paste the citation in your bibliography.
  8. Write and edit your composition! With the help of the evidence you found, refine your thesis statement. Then use your thesis statement as a guide to outline, organize, and write your draft. As you go, carefully incorporate quotations and paraphrases from your sources to provide evidence for your arguments. Also make sure you cite in-text all quotations and paraphrases you incorporate.