Quick tips from a former TA
So you finally got into college. Or you finally got that coveted job working for your favourite professor. In case you haven’t paid attention, or no one’s ever walked you through it, here are some simple steps for successful research from someone who used to get paid for it.
1. Know your field
Google is not your friend. Every field of research (and sub-specification) has its own search engines for topical sources. Find out what yours are by asking around, clicking through your university’s tips for freshmen or simply looking up the databases with a quick Google search. As a bonus, their websites often notify you of events and new research, provide you with tools (e.g. as a medieval lit student I needed an additional alphabet for my Word to quote primary sources) and ways to connect with other scholars, and have job listings.
That being said, you’ll also want to be extra thorough, make sure there are no blind spots, nothing that you’re missing. Do that by using Google Scholar to double-check, or looking up a certain aspect on Wikipedia and checking the article’s sources. The Wikipedia trick can also be a great way to start your research. As always, this requires being critical of your sources.
3. The snowball method
You can find a lot of great material by finding a great book and then going through its bibliography. This helps you find works that are quoted most often and therefore absolutely essential for you to use and additional aspects of a certain topic that you might not previously have considered. It can be tedious, but after a while you learn to skim through the pages and you can disregard everything that’s already on your radar.
4. Varied search terms
One search is not nearly enough. Every search bar you tab into should be treated with a number of variations for maximum results. For example, if your topic is French Gothic architecture, you could try “French Gothic architecture”, “Gothic architecture France”, “French Gothic buildings”, “French Gothic churches”. Try making your search term broader (“Gothic architecture”) and more defined (“St Denis”).
5. Keep track
This requires a bit of experience. If you want to eliminate endlessly looking stuff up and reading things that are no use to you, keep track of names (both those that are mentioned favourably and those that are dropped with a superior smirk) and lines of argument that have been entirely debunked. In the early stages, this tells you where your own writing should fall, and in later stages, who knows, maybe you’ll find something to pick back up and defend. Sometimes a professor will tell you how old your research should be (“Don’t read anything published before 1990!”) and if not, maybe you should devise a best practice of your own.
6. Have a system
Whether you’re using software or a file of your own, typed abbreviations or handwriting, in keeping with the citation style you’re meant to use or not, DOCUMENT YOUR SOURCES. Nothing, and I mean nothing, feels worse than being done writing a paper and having to cobble together a bibliography from scattered notes and the books on your desk. I was always highly motivated by my irrational fear of accidentally committing academic fraud, but if you’re not that anxious, this is your sign.
Research is a skill of its own to hone over time, and now you have what it takes to become good at it. It can even feel like the fun part of your projects, believe it or not! So go forth and do that project/start that paper! Good luck!