If done with adequate time to spare, academic research is like cruising down the highway, taking in everything you come across and following any path that interests you.
If done at the last minute, academic research is like waking up late before a very important meeting—grabbing a coffee in one hand, a toothbrush in the other, while wondering if your shirt is on inside-out.
I’ve been on both sides of this scenario, and I can safely say I prefer the former.
Here are a couple of tricks I've picked up over the years that can help optimize your research process and ensure you start each assignment with a stable foundation. After all, research can be an exciting and unfettered roadtrip, where you’re in the driver’s seat to explore your own interests!
Plan your travels with a research itinerary
While researching, it’s easy to get sidetracked and travel down rabbit holes that have nothing to do with your area of focus. Sometimes, I even catch myself procrastinating the writing process by prolonging my reading! So, plot an itinerary for yourself. It doesn’t need to be too rigid but make a note of the information you’re looking for, and the number of sources you need.
Also, have an idea of the search points or databases where you’ll conduct your research. During my undergrad days, I typically kept 3 tabs open during the research process: UBC Summon (the UBC Library search engine), Google Scholar, and a Word document to take notes on. This way, I avoided wandering through the Internet looking for relevant content and inevitably ending up somewhere unproductive.
Overall, a research itinerary will streamline the process and minimize potential distractions!
Be search savvy
When it comes time to start locating information, it’s helpful to employ effective search queries. Think of keywords that relate to your topic and include them in your searches. The more relevant your searches, the more relevant the results.
For example, if you’re writing a paper on soil erosion and slope stability in the Andes, break your search into the composite parts. Start by searching “soil erosion in the Andes” and then try “slope stability in the Andes.” If your searches are too specific, you run the risk of missing applicable sources.
By searching savvily, you’ll avoid informational scavenger hunts and get right to the prize!
Start low, go high
Nobody starts off as an expert in any subject. Rather, they study, research, and read, all the while slowly building a body of knowledge. Given this, it's beneficial to start researching with sources that will be effective based on one’s level of knowledge—I can’t crack open a book on advanced thermodynamics and expect to understand how rockets work!
Start with encyclopedias (even Wikipedia) that cater to a larger audience, and slowly work up to more advanced material. In doing so, you lower the risk of feeling overwhelmed by jumping right into complex material. It’s also useful for your own writing to see how a subject can be presented to a variety of audiences. Just be mindful of using sources that are up to date.
Start broad, go narrow
As one of my favourite books, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, demonstrates, academia can get really, really specific. There are innumerable ways you can take your research; however, it’s important to start with a broad knowledge base on your chosen subject. You need to have an understanding of the whole, before you can focus in on one part.
As you begin to research your topic, zoom the focus outwards. If you’re writing a paper about, say, the flowers of the Ferocactus robustus, start by looking into cacti more generally. Once you have a knowledge base, hone in your inquiry to the Ferocactus genus, and continue until you are looking into your chosen topic specifically.
Through this process, you’ll be able to contextualize your knowledge and draw comparisons that might not be possible if you focus exclusively on a minute topic!
Research now, write later
Here's a terrifying scenario: you’re halfway through writing a paper and come across research that completely refutes your argument. Or conversely, you find a fascinating topic you could have written about, but it’s too late to change now.
To avoid either scenario, complete the bulk of your research before you begin writing—have a firm idea of what you want to claim, and the sources you’ll rely upon. This will improve the overall consistency and clarity of your work, while preventing headaches later on. After all, it’s easier to change the layout of a home when you’re planning a foundation rather than when you’re building the walls.
Everyone has their own strategies to maximize their research process, and these are just a few suggestions that have worked for me. Whichever way you go about it, a well-executed process saves you time in the long run, and leads to a stronger project overall.
That being said, sometimes it’s just not possible to have extra time for a slow and thorough review of the literature. If your research period is just a few short hours the night before a paper is due, remember to keep your sources reputable and well-cited!
If you’re looking for some more assistance for all your academic needs, try AskAway. This awesome online resource allows users to ask real librarians questions in real time! If you prefer to ask questions in a face-to-face (video) format, you can email any of UBC's subject matter librarians to schedule a virtual appointment.
So, get cruising on the path to a great project with some solid research!