Term Paper Project Formation

Regardless of the nature of your research, if you are writing a paper an outline will help you to not only organize your thoughts, it will also serve as the template for your entire paper. An outline for a research paper is a visual reminder to include all of the pertinent details of your research into your essay or paper. It is essentially a skeletal version of the true paper, and will guide you through the entire process.

Initially, separating your essay, research or other paper into various components (Introduction, Body, Conclusion, etc.) will help you to stay better organized and reduce the risk of important information being forgotten or unintentionally omitted. Furthermore, breaking the essay down into these parts will allow you to address specific parts individually and lessen the chances of feeling overwhelmed or like you might be in over your head.

The structure of your outline will be similar regardless of whether you are writing a scientific paper or something more general. Interestingly, the structure of a research outline is nearly identical to that of a research paper template.  In order to better acquaint yourself with the structure of an outline, check out sample research papers online. The USC Guide to Making an Outline will also help you.

Relatively straightforward, right? However, the part to remember is that each part serves a specific purpose and how you arrange information in your outline will drive how your paper reads upon completion.

The Introduction is one of the most important elements of any great research paper, and interestingly enough, often written LAST. This is because the purpose of the introduction is to grab the attention of the reader, this is done by presenting the reader with the topic, and using the thesis statement as an opportunity to ‘hook’ the attention of the reader.

The Body is the heartiest part of the essay, it includes many fact-rich paragraphs or subsections and will allow you to build upon your thesis statement by providing facts to support your argument. This section should not only elaborate on your opening statement, but also provide insight into the methods used to conduct your research and also include investigative points or answers to questions pondered.

You will also want to consider using a literature overview. This is achieved by documenting the literary sources used to support your theories and hypothesis. The topic of your paper and the selected literature should be adjacent.

If you used any sort of data validation, this will typically follow the methodology and literature sections. This is where you will highlight your results and mention other variables that you’ve uncovered in your research. You might choose to use graphs or tables, but remember to explain these to your readers.

Lastly, you will write your Conclusion. The conclusion typically does not offer new information, but rather summarizes the main points addressed in the paper. It is mandatory to also reiterate the thesis statement and mention any future research.

There are a number of sources you can turn to for research paper examples and, depending on your field of study, a plethora of potential high quality topics exist to pull your subject matter from.

As you will learn from looking any good research paper example, writing a great paper involves so much more than simply throwing a bunch of text and citations into a word processor and hoping for the best.

A passing grade means not only thoroughly researching your topic and ensuring that all of your sources are accurately cited, it also means ensuring that your research essay is properly formatted. The following guideline will help you to create finished paper that not only reads like it was professionally written – but also looks like it!

1. Paper

Use clean, good quality 8 1/2″ x 11″ white paper, one side only.

2. Margins

Leave margins of your essay 1″ (2.5 cm) at the top, bottom, left and right sides of each and every page. 1″ is about 10 typed spaces.  Exception is made for page numbers which are placed 1/2″ (1.25 cm) from the top upper-right hand corner, flushed to the right margin.

3. Title Page

A title page is not essential for a research paper unless specifically requested by your teacher. The MLA Handbook provides a general guideline on writing a research paper and documenting sources. In case of conflict, you should always follow guidelines set down by your teacher.

If you don’t have a title page, you may begin 1″ from the top of the first page of your essay and start typing your name flushed against the left margin. Then under your name, on separate lines, double-spaced, and flushed against the left margin, type your teacher’s name, your course code, and the date.

If your teacher prefers the first page of your essay not be numbered, you will begin numbering with page 2.

Double-space after the date. On a new line, center the title of your essay. If you have a long title, double-space between lines of the title.

Example:
Jones 1
Tracy Jones
Ms. K. Smith
NRW-3A1-01
16 January 2006
Gun Control: Pros and Cons
Do not type your title all in capital letters. Do not put quotations marks before and after the title. Do not underline the title, or put a period at the end of the title. Proper names of people and places as well as important words should be capitalized in the title, but prepositions and conjunctions are normally shown in lower case letters, e.g. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The same rule applies to headings and subheadings as well.

Follow the same capitalization rules for acronyms as you normally would in writing a text of the essay, e.g. FBI would be all in capitals as it is the acronym for Federal Bureau of Investigations. When using an acronym, especially an uncommon one, you must indicate what the letters stand for at the first occurrence in your essay. Example: The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is nearly finished converting from using standard desktop PCs to blade PCs.

If a Title Page is a requirement for your assignment, begin on a new page. Use a format preferred by your teacher. Otherwise, center each line and double-space every line on a blank page: name of school (optional), title of paper in upper and lower case, course code, course name (optional), teacher’s name, your first and last name, and date.

Your separate title page should appear as follows:
Gun Control: Pros and Cons
NRW-3A1-01
Ms. K. Smith
Tracy Jones
16 January 2006
The following example shows what NOT to do for a title page:
TITLE OF ESSAY: “GUN CONTROL: PROS AND CONS”
COURSE CODE: “NRW-3A1-01”
TO MY TEACHER: “MS. KATIE ELIZABETH SMITH”
FROM YOUR STUDENT: “TRACY MARIA CHRISTINA CARMELA JONES”
ASSIGNMENT DUE DATE: “MONDAY, JANUARY THE SIXTEENTH, IN THE YEAR 2006”
It is not necessary to describe or explain the title page by adding the words: Title, Course Code, To, From, or Due Date. More is not better. Minimal information providing simple identification is adequate.

4. Numbering Pages and Paragraphs

Number your pages consecutively throughout the essay in the upper right hand corner, flush against the right margin and 1/2″ from the top. The MLA Handbook recommends that you type your last name just before the page number in case the pages get misplaced (134). On page 4 of your essay, for example, your top right-hand corner should show: Jones 4

Page numbers must be written in Arabic numerals. Do not add anything fancy to decorate a page number. Do not underline it, enclose it between hyphens, parentheses, asterisks, or precede it with “Page”, “Pg.”, “P.”, or add a period after the number. In other words, DO NOT use any of the following:

PAGE 4, Page 4, Pg. 4, P 4, pg. 4, p. 4, #4, ~ 4 ~, – 4 -, * 4*, (4), “4”, 4, or 4.

Simply write: 4

Remember, there is no period after the page number.

If you are submitting your essay to your teacher via e-mail, he or she may prefer that you number all your paragraphs consecutively with reference points by adding [1] at the beginning of your 1st paragraph, [2] before your 2nd paragraph, and so forth. Electronic submission of documents is becoming more common as e-mail is being used widely. This system will facilitate the citation of sources by identifying a specific paragraph for reference very quickly.

5. Spacing Between Lines

Whether your essay is handwritten, typed or printed, the entire essay should be double-spaced between lines along with 1″ margin on all sides for your teacher to write comments.

Spacing Between Words

In general, leave one space between words and one space after every comma, semi-colon, or colon. Traditionally, two spaces are required at the end of every sentence whether the sentence ends with a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. Although it is not wrong to leave two spaces after a period, it is quite acceptable nowadays to leave only one space after each punctuation mark. However, NO space should be left in front of a punctuation mark; for example, the following would be incorrect: op. cit. or “Why me?”

For details on how to place tables, illustrations, figures, musical notations, labels, captions, etc. in your essay, please see the MLA Handbook (134-137).

6. Indentation

If a handwritten essay is acceptable to your teacher, remember to double-space all lines, and begin each paragraph with an indentation of 1″ from the left margin. Use the width of your thumb as a rough guide.

If you are using a typewriter or a word processor on a computer, indent 5 spaces or 1/2″ at the beginning of each paragraph. Indent set-off quotations 10 spaces or 1″ from the left margin.

Your instructor may give you a choice to indent or not to indent your paragraphs. No matter whichever one you choose to use, you must be consistent throughout your essay.

If you are NOT indenting, you will start each paragraph flush to the left margin. It is essential that you double-space between lines and quadruple-space between paragraphs. When paragraphs are not indented, it is difficult for a reader to see where a new paragraph begins, hence quadruple-space is called for between paragraphs. Set-off quotations should still be indented 10 spaces or 1″ from the left margin.

7. Right Justify and Automatic Hyphens:

Do not right justify your entire essay and do not automatically format hyphens if you are using a word processor to type your essay. Left justify or justify your essay and type in the hyphens yourself where needed. Left justification is preferred as it will not leave big gaps between words.

8. Titles of Books, Magazines, Newspapers, or Journals

When used within the text of your paper, titles of all full-length works such as novels, plays, or books, should be underlined, e.g. Shakespeare’s Theater.

Put in quotation marks titles of shorter works, such as newspaper, journal, and magazine articles, chapters of books or essays, e.g.: “Giving Back to the Earth: Western Helps Make a Difference in India.”

For all title citations, every word, except articles (“a”, “an”, “the”), prepositions (such as “in”, “on”, “under”, “over”), and conjunctions (such as “and”, “because”, “but”, “however”), should be capitalized, unless they occur at the beginning of the title or subtitle, e.g.: “And Now for Something Completely Different: A Hedgehog Hospital.”

Look it up in a dictionary whenever you are not sure whether a word is being used as a preposition, a conjunction, a noun, a verb, or an adverb. The word “near”, for instance, may be an adverb, an adjective, a verb, or a preposition depending on the context in which it is used.

For complicated details on how to cite titles and quotations within titles, sacred texts, shortened titles, exceptions to the rule, etc. please consult the MLA Handbook (102-109).

9. Writing an Essay All in Capital Letters:

DO NOT WRITE OR TYPE EVERYTHING ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS EVEN THOUGH THIS SAVES YOU TIME AND EFFORT NOT TO HAVE TO USE THE SHIFT KEY REPEATEDLY OR TO HAVE TO FIGURE OUT WHEN OR WHEN NOT TO USE CAPITAL LETTERS.SOME PEOPLE WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE THEY HAD NEVER LEARNED TO WRITE SENTENCES IN UPPER AND LOWER-CASE LETTERS PROPERLY WHEN THEY WERE IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL.OTHER PEOPLE WRITE ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE THEY WANT TO MAKE WHAT THEY WRITE APPEAR IMPORTANT.READING A PAPER ALL WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS,ESPECIALLY ONE WITHOUT SPACES AFTER PUNCTUATION MARKS,SLOWS DOWN READING SPEED AND MAY EVEN REDUCE READER COMPREHENSION,BESIDES BEING EXTREMELY ANNOYING TO THE READER.REMEMBER THAT THE PURPOSE OF WRITING ANYTHING IS TO COMMUNICATE.MOST OF US ARE NOT CONDITIONED TO READ ALL TEXT IN CAPITAL LETTERS.WORD PROCESSORS ALSO TREAT WORDS STUCK TOGETHER WITHOUT SPACES AS SINGLE WORDS CAUSING OTHER PROBLEMS.

10. Table of Contents

A short essay or research paper requires no Table of Contents.

If your written report or research paper is extremely long, it may be helpful to include a Table of Contents showing the page number where each section begins.

For those writing a lengthy document, i.e. a book, here is the suggested order for placing items in a Table of Contents:

Acknowledgements, Foreword, Introduction, Body (Parts I, II, III), Summary or Conclusion, Afterword, Explanatory Notes, Appendices, Contact Organizations, Glossary, Endnotes (if not using Footnotes or Parenthetical citations), Bibliography, Index.

A less involved Table of Contents may include simply the following sections: Introduction, Body (use main section headings), Conclusion (or Summary), Works Cited (or References), along with the corresponding page number where each section begins.

Example:

CONTENTS

Introduction …………………………………………………………………  1
Government …………………………………………………………………  3
Economy ……………………………………………………………………… 6
Arts and Entertainment ……………………………………………….. 10
Conclusion ………………………………………………………………….. 14
Works Cited ………………………………………………………………… 15

11. End of Essay

No special word, phrase or fancy symbol is needed to mark the end of your essay. A period at the end of your last sentence is all that is needed.

12. Keeping Essay Together

Sheets of paper should be stapled at the upper left-hand corner. Use a paper clip if no stapler is available. Do not use a pin or fold the paper. Unless specifically requested by your teacher, do not hand in your paper in a folder, a binder, a plastic jacket, rolled up with an elastic band around it, or tied with a ribbon or a string. Do not spray perfume or cologne on your paper or use scented paper. And NEVER hand in your research or term paper in loose sheets even if the sheets are numbered and neatly placed in an envelope or folder.

The condition of the paper you hand in is an indication of the respect you have for yourself and the respect you have for your teacher. Before handing in your paper, ask yourself, “Is this the VERY BEST that I can do?”

Final Note on Your Essay

The topics used for each research paper are inherently different, and even identical topics will appear to be unique based on the viewpoints and educational level of the author. Regardless of your grade level or the topic you’ve been assigned, a research paper outline can help you turn in a great essay. It should include a bulleted list of subheadings and headings, be sure to include as much detail as possible. Crossing out each section as you finish it will help you to stay thorough.

Here is a sample research paper outline.

INTRODUCTION

  1. A quick overview or introduction of the topic or issue
  2. The methodology being used
  3. The thesis statement
  4. A full review of every source used and all of the corresponding literature
  5. A brief explanation of the relevance of the research

BODY

  1. Detailed and thorough information about the main points of the argument
  2. Use as many paragraphs as necessary. Each paragraph should represent a different point.

CONCLUSION

  1. Brief summary of all of the main points or facts mentioned in the body.
  2. Reiteration of the thesis statement
  3. Closing remark or thought.

This guide addresses the task of planning and conducting a small research project, such as for an undergraduate or masters’ level dissertation. It aims to help you develop a clear sense of direction early on in the project, and to support you in organising, planning, and monitoring your project.

The companion guide Writing a dissertation focuses on the preparation of the written report or thesis.

What is a dissertation?

A dissertation is a particular kind of academic task. You will usually be asked to generate a topic for yourself; to plan and execute a project investigating that topic; and to write-up what you did and what your findings were. Important stages in the dissertation process include:

  • choosing a topic;
  • developing a research question;
  • effective planning of the research;
  • being organised and methodical while conducting your research; and
  • reporting the research.

Choosing a topic

While some students come to their research project with a clear research question to address, many others arrive at this point with several ideas, but with no specific research question. In view of the pressure to get started fairly quickly, this can cause anxiety and even panic. It is, however, a common situation to be in. There are several ways forward:

  • Talk to others: what topics are other students considering? Does this spark an interest? Don’t wait until you have a fully formed research question before discussing your ideas with others, as their comments and questions may help you to refine your focus.

  • Look at other writing: set aside some time to spend in the library, skimming through the titles of research papers in your field over the past five years, and reading the abstracts of those you find most interesting.

  • Look through the dissertations of previous students in your department: the topics may give you inspiration, and they may have useful suggestions for further research.

  • Think about your own interests: which topic have you found most interesting, and is there an element that could be developed into a research project?

  • Is there a related topic of interest to you that has not been covered in the syllabus, but would fit with the theory or methodology you have been working with?

  • Be extra critical: is there something in your course so far that you have been sceptical about, or which you think needs further study?

  • Read about an interesting topic and keep asking the question ‘Why?’ :this may identify a research question you could address.

Remember that a research study can:

  • replicate an existing study in a different setting;

  • explore an under-researched area;

  • extend a previous study;

  • review the knowledge thus far in a specific field;

  • develop or test out a methodology or method;

  • address a research question in isolation, or within a wider programme of work; or

  • apply a theoretical idea to a real world problem.

This list is not exhaustive, and you need to check whether your department has a preference for particular kinds of research study.

Discuss your proposed topic with a member of academic staff who you think might be appropriate to supervise the project. Provided they feel that they know enough about the subject to supervise it, and provided that it can be interpreted as falling within the broad fields of your degree subject, academic staff are generally open to suggestions.

You should think realistically about the practical implications of your choice, in terms of:

  • the time requirement;

  • necessary travelling;

  • access to equipment or room space;

  • access to the population of interest; and 

  • possible costs.

For example, a project on coal mining in the North East of England may require you to visit Newcastle’s Record Office, or to interview coal miners from the region. Is this something that you are prepared and able to do? If the practical considerations associated with your research ideas are unrealistic, you need to consider whether you are willing to modify or reconsider your project.

Developing a research question

Once your topic has been accepted by your department, you need to begin the process of refining the topic and turning it into something that is focused enough to guide your project. Try describing it as a research problem that sets out:

  • the issue that you are going to be investigating;

  • your argument or thesis (what you want to prove, disprove, or explore); and

  • the limits of your research (i.e. what you are not going to be investigating).

It is important that you establish a research problem at, or close to the start of, your project. It is one of the key tools you have, to ensure that your project keeps going in the right direction. Every task you undertake should begin with you checking your research problem and asking “will this help me address this problem?”.

You should be willing to revise your research problem as you find out more about your topic. You may, for example, discover that the data you were hoping to analyse is not available, or you may encounter a new piece of information or a new concept while undertaking a literature search, that makes you rethink the basis of your research problem. You should always talk to your supervisor before you make any substantial revision to your plans, and explain why you think you need to make the change.

Research problemCommentary
'Public transport in Scotland’ This sets out your research field but does not frame a research problem because it is too general. You do not have time to study everything about a topic, so you should focus on an aspect that you are interested in.
‘Examination of the influence of public transport links on new housing development in Western Scotland’This is a much better research problem as it establishes an argument (existence of public transport may have some influence on new housing development). However, it is still quite general and could be improved by further focus.
‘Investigation of the relationship between public transport links and the development of new areas of housing in Western Scotland: a comparison of local plans and building development since 1990’This is better still. It shows the limits of the project. You will be investigating a complex subject (public transport in Scotland), but will be focusing on only one aspect of it (possible influence on new housing development). You will make this large subject manageable by focusing on a limited period of time (1990 onwards), and limited sources.

Effective planning of the research

Writing a research proposal

A research proposal is a more detailed description of the project you are going to undertake. Some departments require you to submit a research proposal as part of the assessment of your dissertation, but it is worth preparing one even if it is not a formal requirement of your course. It should build on the thinking that you have done in defining your research problem; on the discussions that you have had with your supervisor; and on early reading that you have done on the topic. A comprehensive research proposal will make you think through exactly what it is that you are going to do, and will help you when you start to write up the project.

You could try outlining your project under the following headings (Booth, Williams, & Colomb, 2003. The craft of research. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.):

Topic:this project will study...  
Question/problem: to find out...
Significance:so that more will be known about... 
Primary resources:the main data will be...
Secondary sources:additional data comes from... 
Methods:the research will be conducted as follows...
Justification:the method is most appropriate because...
Limitations:there are some matters that this methodology may not help me to explain. These might include... 

You may find that some of these headings are difficult to fill in right at the start of your project. However, you can use the gaps to help identify where you need to begin work. If, for example, you are unsure about the limitations of your methodology you should talk to your supervisor and read a bit more about that methodology before you start.

Creating a research plan

A dissertation is an extended project that asks you to manage your time and undertake a variety of tasks. Some courses schedule the dissertation at the end, while others have it running along concurrently with other modules. Whichever way your course is organised, it is essential that you create a plan that helps you allocate enough time to each task you have to complete.

It is useful to work out how many weeks you have until you need to submit your completed dissertation, and draw a chart showing these weeks. Block out the weeks when you know you will be unable to work, and mark in other main commitments you have that will take time during this period. Then allocate research tasks to the remaining time.

January

Christmas Write research proposal Literature reviewComplete literature review and conduct pilot studyMain data collection

 

February

Complete data collectionAnalyse data Analyse data Write dissertation plan, then begin first draft

 

March

Complete first draftDiscuss draft with supervisorSecond draftSecond draftProofing/checking  

 

It is very important to be realistic about how long each task is likely to take. Some focused thought at the beginning, then at the planning stage of each phase, could save hours later on.  Write down the resources needed for each stage. It could be time in the library; the resource of your working hours; or the use of equipment or room space that needs to be booked in advance.

Procrastination

Some people find that they procrastinate more than they would like. This is a common problem, so it is probably best to be well-prepared to identify it and deal with it if it does start to happen. People procrastinate for various reasons for example:

  • poor time management
  • dauted by the scale of the task
  • negative beliefs 
  • loss of motivation
  • perfectionism
  • difficulty concentrating
  • need to feel under pressure
  • personal problems

Early identification of the signs of procrastination will give you the best chance of minimising any negative effects. Once you suspect that you are procrastinating, it can be helpful to review what you are expecting of yourself, and check that those expectations are realistic. This is where planning is vital.

Realistic planning

To improve the prospect of completing on time, and avoiding procrastination, you need to:

  • be realistic about when you can/will start;

  • devote time to planning and revising your plan;

  • try to work out if any of your research will take a set amount of time to complete;

  • allocate appropriate time for any travelling you need to do for your research;

  • include other (non-dissertation related) things that you have to do between now and then;

  • have clear and achievable objectives for each week;

  • focus on one thing at a time;

  • leave time for editing and correcting;

  • reward yourself when you complete objectives that you have timetabled; and

  • if you fall behind make sure you spend time reworking your plan.

Your research plan should also include information about what equipment you will need to complete your project, and any travel costs or other expenses that you are likely to incur through the pursuit of your research. You should also think about whether you are dependent on any one else to complete your project, and think about what you are going to do if they are unable to help you.

Once you have created your plan it is a good idea to show it to someone else. Ideally you will be able to show it to a member of academic staff or bring it to the Learning Development, but talking it over with a friend may also help you to spot anything that you have forgotten or anywhere that you have been unrealistic in your planning.

Being organised and methodical while conducting your research

The role of the supervisor

Although a dissertation is an opportunity for you to work independently, you will usually be allocated a member of academic staff as a supervisor. Supervisors are there to help you shape your ideas and give you advice on how to conduct the research for your dissertation. They are not there to teach you the topic you have chosen to investigate: this is your project. They are, however, one of the resources that you can call on during your research.

Academics are busy people, so to get the most out of your supervisor you will need to be organised and to take responsibility for the relationship. It is not your supervisor’s job to chase you into completing your dissertation, or to tell you how to manage the different stages of the project. To ensure that you get the most out of your supervisor you need to:

  • agree a timetable of meetings at the start of your project and stick to it;

  • make sure that each meeting has a focus e.g. “setting a research problem”, “analysing the data”;

  • send something that can form the basis of a discussion about your progress to your supervisor before each meeting. This could include your research plan, early results of your data collection or draft chapters;

  • turn up on time to each meeting you have arranged. Do not assume that your supervisor is available at all times to see you;

  • at the end of each supervision agree some action points for you to focus on before the next time you meet; and

  • keep a record of what you decide in supervision sessions.

If you are not happy with the way you are being supervised, explain why to your supervisor or discuss the issue with your personal tutor.

Undertaking a literature survey

Regardless of whether you have been given a dissertation topic or you have developed your own ideas, you will need to be able to demonstrate the rationale for your research, and to describe how it fits within the wider research context in your area. To support you in doing this you will need to undertake a literature review, which is a review of material that has already been published, either in hard copy or electronically, that may be relevant for your research project. Key tools that are available to help you, include:

  • internet search engines, especially ones that offer advanced search features (see http://www.google.com/ and http://scholar.google.com/);

  • the University of Leicester Library Catalogue;

  • electronic journals available via the library; and

  • bibliographies in any key texts about your topic.

It is a good idea to make an appointment to see the librarian specialising in your subject. An information librarian should be able to give you advice on your literature search, and on how to manage the information that you generate.

You will probably generate more references than you can read. Use the titles and abstracts to decide whether the reference is worth reading in detail. Be selective by concentrating on references that:

  • are recommended by your supervisor;

  • contain a high number of specifically relevant keywords;

  • are cited in a number of other works; and

  • are published in the last five years, unless they are key texts in your field.

Once you start reading, ensure that you think about what you are trying to get out of each article or book that you read. Your notes should enable you to write up your literature search without returning to the books you have read. Refer to the guides Effective Note Making, Referencing and Bibliographies, and Avoiding Plagiarism, for further help with note-making.

Collecting data

For most research projects the data collection phase feels like the most important part. However, you should avoid jumping straight into this phase until you have adequately defined your research problem, and the extent and limitations of your research. If you are too hasty you risk collecting data that you will not be able to use.

Consider how you are going to store and retrieve your data. You should set up a system that allows you to:

  • record data accurately as you collect it;

  • retrieve data quickly and efficiently;

  • analyse and compare the data you collect; and

  • create appropriate outputs for your dissertation e.g. tables and graphs, if appropriate.

There are many systems that support effective data collection and retrieval. These range from card indexes and cross-referenced exercise books, through electronic tools like spreadsheets, databases and bibliographic software, to discipline-specific tools. You should talk about how you plan to store your data with your supervisor, an information librarian, or a study adviser in the Learning Development. As you undertake your research you are likely to come up with lots of ideas. It can be valuable to keep a record of these ideas on index cards, in a dedicated notebook, or in an electronic file. You can refer back to this ‘ideas store’ when you start to write. They may be useful as ideas in themselves, and may be useful as a record of how your thinking developed through the research process.

Pilot studies

A pilot study involves preliminary data collection, using your planned methods, but with a very small sample. It aims to test out your approach, and identify any details that need to be addressed before the main data collection goes ahead.  For example, you could get a small group to fill in your questionnaire, perform a single experiment, or analyse a single novel or document.

When you complete your pilot study you should be cautious about reading too much into the results that you have generated (although these can sometimes be interesting). The real value of your pilot study is what it tells you about your method.

  • Was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

  • Did it take longer than you thought it was going to?

  • Did participants, chemicals, processes behave in the way you expected?

  • What impact did it have on you as a researcher?

Spend time reflecting on the implications that your pilot study might have for your research project, and make the necessary adjustment to your plan. Even if you do not have the time or opportunity to run a formal pilot study, you should try and reflect on your methods after you have started to generate some data.

Dealing with problems

Once you start to generate data you may find that the research project is not developing as you had hoped. Do not be upset that you have encountered a problem. Research is, by its nature, unpredictable. Analyse the situation. Think about what the problem is and how it arose. Is it possible that going back a few steps may resolve it? Or is it something more fundamental? If so, estimate how significant the problem is to answering your research question, and try to calculate what it will take to resolve the situation. Changing the title is not normally the answer, although modification of some kind may be useful.

If a problem is intractable you should arrange to meet your supervisor as soon as possible. Give him or her a detailed analysis of the problem, and always value their recommendations. The chances are they have been through a similar experience and can give you valuable advice. Never try to ignore a problem, or hope that it will go away. Also don’t think that by seeking help you are failing as a researcher.

Finally, it is worth remembering that every problem you encounter, and successfully solve, is potentially useful information in writing up your research. So don’t be tempted to skirt around any problems you encountered when you come to write-up. Rather, flag up these problems and show your examiners how you overcame them.

Reporting the research

As you conduct research, you are likely to realise that the topic that you have focused on is more complex than you realised when you first defined your research question. The research is still valid even though you are now aware of the greater size and complexity of the problem. A crucial skill of the researcher is to define clearly the boundaries of their research and to stick to them. You may need to refer to wider concerns; to a related field of literature; or to alternative methodology; but you must not be diverted into spending too much time investigating relevant, related, but distinctly separate fields.

Starting to write up your research can be intimidating, but it is essential that you ensure that you have enough time not only to write up your research, but also to review it critically, then spend time editing and improving it. The following tips should help you to make the transition from research to writing:

  • In your research plan you need to specify a time when you are going to stop researching and start writing. You should aim to stick to this plan unless you have a very clear reason why you need to continue your research longer.

  • Take a break from your project. When you return, look dispassionately at what you have already achieved and ask yourself the question: ‘Do I need to do more research?’

  • Speak to your supervisor about your progress. Ask them whether you still need to collect more data.

Remember that you can not achieve everything in your dissertation. A section where you discuss ‘Further Work’ at the end of your dissertation will show that you are thinking about the implications your work has for the academic community.

The companion study guide Writing a Dissertation focuses on the process of writing up the research from your research project.

Summary

  • Think carefully about your topic and ensure that it is sufficiently focused.

  • Write a detailed research proposal to help you anticipate the issues/problems that you are going to deal with.

  • Devote time to planning and stick to your plan.

  • Work closely with your supervisor and respect the time and advice that they give you.

  • Be organised and take detailed notes when you are undertaking your literature survey and data collection.

  • Make a clear decision about stopping data collection.

  • Move positively into writing-up your research.

  • Allocate enough time to reviewing and editing your writing.

  • Remember that you cannot achieve everything in your dissertation, but you can critically appraise what you have done, and outline ideas for further, relevant research.

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