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Tackling your first research project

Posted on: September 2, 2020

Your first research project can be daunting. For many students it is very different to anything they will have encountered before. More often than not you will have some, if not complete freedom over your choice of research topic and this is where you can focus your nerves by remembering that a research project can be fun and interesting. After all, you can pick an area to research that fascinates you, and that will make the whole thing a lot more enjoyable.

Identifying your topic

It can be difficult to choose which part of a subject to research when the decision is entirely yours. It is still pretty difficult when you have been given some direction by your tutor. After all, you don’t want to rehash research that has already been done, or waste your time researching an area that has been researched a thousand times before. You may have many areas of interest and find it difficult to know exactly which area to focus on.

There are a few things to think about here. First, make a list of topics that interest you. Ask questions of each topic, break them down into ideas and arguments that you want to explore further. From that point, pick the one that interests you the most but be careful - try and choose a topic that is narrow enough that your argument is focussed, but broad enough that you know you will have enough relevant sources to use. It is also worth making sure you know exactly what is expected of you in this research project. It’s easy to get carried away by your idea and forget what is being asked of you.

Beginning your research

Do some basic research by visiting your library, either in person or digitally, to find out what related research already exists. Talk to your subject librarian to find out what resources are available that you may not be aware of. Remember, the library is not just a place filled with books and journals. It will also have a range of databases and digital resources that could be exactly what you need. You’ll also find past dissertations by others from your department, which may help you develop your ideas further and can be used as sources for your own research.

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Chat to others about your research ideas too. Discussion will help you to refine your ideas and you may discover that your friends have ideas and viewpoints about the topic that hadn’t occurred to you yet.

At this stage keep your research quite widely focussed, reading around related topics to help you round out your ideas. Don’t be afraid to let your ideas expand and change as you plan.

Digging deeper into your topic

Once you have started to get a firm idea of what you want to concentrate on it is time to start bringing it into greater focus. Establish the goals of your research; what are you aiming to achieve? What is your argument? Within your chosen topic, what issue are you planning to investigate? Think too about the limits of what you will be researching. This comes back to keeping a narrow focus; you need to have a clear idea of the limits of the project otherwise you risk the piece losing its focus completely.

Try creating a thesis statement to help you get your idea really clear in your head. A thesis statement takes your topic of research and distils it into one sentence, addressing your topic, the argument and the approach you will take. That sounds hard, right? It is, and it can take time to get right, but it is time well spent. By distilling your idea down into this one statement you will achieve clarity on what you want to achieve, and your project will be all the better for it.

For all this, you may still find yourself struggling to work out what you want to research. Maybe there are just too many things that interest you, or you can’t find something original. If this happens, talk to your lecturer. They will help you find your way through your ideas and offer advice on topics to avoid or even provide some ideas that hadn’t occurred to you.

Get organised

Before you begin, get yourself organised. It’s no good diving in head-first with no idea of how you will structure your time and your research notes. Create a dedicated file on your computer, broken down further into sections for each part and stage of your work, e.g. initial planning, research notes, bibliography, final draft, etc.
Make sure you keep a clear record of your sources as you go. Not only does this protect you against plagiarism, it will make sure that you don’t struggle to find that perfect quote when you come to write up your project, and when it is time to write the bibliography you already have all the information to hand. A good, clear bibliography will help to show your lecturer the breadth of your research and will demonstrate the work you have put in. Every time you find something you will, or think you will need, make a note of it on a dedicated page of your notebook so that you will be able to find it quickly. Make sure you know the referencing method required by your course so that you know exactly which information you need to record and the format that is required.

As soon as you know when the project is due, break it down into tasks and decided how much time you need to dedicate to each part, adding a little extra time to each in case of problems or unforeseen delays. Make sure you block out time in your calendar to complete each task. That way, you won’t find the deadline hurtling towards you while you sit in front of the latest box set unprepared for the work that is due. And when you complete each goal, reward yourself. Even if that reward is small, a bar of chocolate or curling up with a favourite novel, taking time for yourself is important.

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Don’t forget to talk to your lecturer if you get stuck at any point throughout the project! They aren’t there to just stand in front of the class and talk at you: they are your support through your study and will be happy to help guide you through any problems that arise. Remember though, they aren’t there to do the work for you; simply to encourage and advise.

Going further with your research

When you start your research, find out if your subject librarian has a research guide that could help you. These guides will offer advice on the range of resources available to you in the library and will help you find your way through the first stages of research, as you try to work out what is relevant, what is not, and what is leading you down interesting but irrelevant paths.

Take some time to look at the background of your subject. It doesn’t need to be extensive but having some wider, background knowledge can help you see the bigger picture and will help you put your research into context.

Don’t be afraid to be flexible. As you research and start to learn more about the topic and the argument you’re studying, you may find your idea developing so that it no longer quite fits the focus you’d planned. That’s ok, as long as you don’t go too far off topic. Be prepared to tweak your thesis statement just enough to accommodate the changes that your research throws up.

Use all the resources your library has to offer and if necessary, utilise the inter-library loan service to request any titles you can’t find. Make sure you widen your search beyond books and journal articles though. As mentioned above, speak to your subject librarian to find out which databases and digital platforms your institution provides access to. You very likely have access to a whole range of tools of which you may be completely unaware.