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Advice for Students: 10 Steps Toward Better Research

Advice for Students: 10 Steps Toward Better Research

A little while back, I wrote about ways for students to add a little extra “kick” to their research papers. Those strategies were meant for students who had already mastered the basics of performing research, not students just getting started doing research and writing papers. As with writing, though, research skills are rarely taught very clearly — professors assume students know or can figure out how to do good research, or at best turn their students over to a librarian for a tour of the library’s facilities and resources. Is it any wonder that so many university students rely on Wikipedia as the first and last stop in their research itinerary?

To help students get up to speed on basic research skills, here’s 10 tips to help you find, organize, and use the information you need to put together a decent research paper.

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  1. Schedule! I tell my students that the first step in writing a research paper is to admit you have a research paper. Write up a schedule with a series of milestones to accomplish by a specific date (e.g. find 10 sources by September 20, finish preliminary research by October 15), and keep to it. You will need time to get an overview of what material is out there, find out what’s in your library, select relevant material, read it, take notes, and start putting it together — and to do a second wave of research to clear up points raised in the writing of your first draft.
  2. Start, don’t end, with Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great place to start your research — spend some time searching for keywords related to your topic, browsing the links you find on each page, and following their suggested resources. Take notes, especially of any good sources they recommend. The goal here is to get a good overview of the subject you’re writing about, and Wikipedia is far better for that than most print sources, because of its hyperlink ed nature. By the time you get ready to write, though, you should have much better sources at your command than Wikipedia, so avoid citing it in your paper.
  3. Mine bibliographies. Once you’ve found a good, solid academic book or essay on your topic, you’re golden — at the end there will be a list of dozens or hundreds of sources for you to look up. You can usually skim through the bibliography and note down anything whose title sounds relevant to your research. Academic authors aren’t very creative with their titles, so it is usually pretty easy to tell what their work is about from just the title or subtitle. Go back through and see if you recognize any of the authors’ names — these too might be worth following up. once you start finding the work the first book referenced, do the same thing with their bibliographies — soon you’ll have a list of far more sources than you need (but you need them, because your library may not have all the books and journals referred to, and inter-library loan is so slow as to be useless for students who need to finish by the end of the semester).
  4. Have a research question in mind. Technically, your thesis should emerge from your research, when you have data in front of you. But you need a kind of “working thesis” while doing your research — a question you want to answer. As you come across new material, ask yourself if it looks like it will help you answer your question. Anything that looks relevant but doesn’t help answer your question you can put back. It’s tempting to gather a lot of background material, and some is necessary, but too much will waste your time without contributing to your research. Get one or two good sources for background (your initial Wikipedia searching should be adequate in most cases) and then keep focused by working towards an answer to your research question.
  5. Deal with one piece at a time. Don’t try to tackle your subject all at once. Get enough of a sense of the topic that you can create an outline of the things you need to understand, and then deal with each piece on its own. You’ll find the connections between the pieces when you write your first draft.
  6. Use a system. Start your research with an idea of how you plan to collect and organize your notes and data. Although I’ve written papers using index cards before, my favorite system is to use a one-subject notebook. At the top of a fresh page, I write the full bibliographic reference for a book or paper, then copy quotes and write notes — both tagged with the page numbers they came from — interspersed with thoughts and ideas that occur to me as I’m reading. I’d love to use a computer more efficiently when doing research, and have built databases and tried wikis and outliners and other kinds of software, but I’ve never found a system that worked well — I spent more time fiddling with the software than getting work done. Whatever system you decide on, make sure that every quote, fact, and thought is tied in some way to its source so that you can easily insert references while you’re writing.
  7. Know your resources. Spend some time getting to know what resources, both online and offline, your library to offer. Most libraries offer tours to students, or talk to a research librarian — or at the least, walk through the library to get a feel for what is where, paying special attention to the microfilm repository and periodicals, which you’ll use a lot in the course of most research projects. Most university libraries also subscribe to a number of academic databases, and most are now accessible online — get to know the research material you can access from home. J-Stor, for instance, holds full-text photographic copies of hundreds of journals, all easily searchable. There’s nothing quite like thinking of something in the middle of the night, logging on, and printing out two or three relevant journal articles to review in the morning.
  8. Ask for help. Use the human resources available to you as well as the material resources. Most professors spend their office hours waiting in disappointment for a student to drop in and give them something to justify the time they’re required to keep an open hour — be that student! Ask for help in finding and evaluating sources, or for help in figuring out what to do with the material you’ve collected so far. Another often-overlooked resource is your friendly neighborhood librarian. Librarians are, in my estimation, the best people on Earth — they know the material in their charge forwards and backwards, they are deeply concerned with seeing it used, and they have committed their lives to making information more available. Most librarians will be happy to help you find relevant material for your project, and some will even locate specific pieces of hard-to-find information for you. Don’t forget to ask your fellow student for help, too — some of the might have come across work directly relevant to your topic.
  9. Carry an idea book. As you start really getting into your project, your mind will start churning through what you’re reading, even when you’re not consciously working on it. If you’re like me, you’ll be struck by sudden revelations at the least convenient times — in the bathroom, in the shower, at the supermarket. or while getting ready for bed. Keep a small notebook and a pen with you everywhere (well, maybe not in the shower — although I do keep dry erase markers by the sink so I can write down quick thoughts on the bathroom mirror when I get out of the shower); jot down notes whenever an idea crosses your mind, and transfer these notes into your research log (or software, or whatever) as soon as you can.
  10. Bring it up to date. Pay attention to the publication date of your material — while it’s ok to use older material, ideally you’d like the bulk of your references to come from the last 10 years or so. If research in your topic seems to dry up a decade or so back, it might be because the field moved on, but it also might be because funding opportunities disappeared, a major researcher died, or any number of accidental reasons. One trick is to Google the major researchers whose work you’ve found and see if you can find their homepages — most will list recent publications and their current research activities — it could be that someone has a book about to come out, or reports published in obscure or foreign journals. If so, you might try inter-library loan, or in some cases, try contacting the researcher herself and ask if they can send you a draft or reprint. Be courteous, explain what you’re working on and what you’re trying to find out, where your research has taken you so far, and what light you hope their work can shed on your topic. Do not ask for a list of references or what your thesis should be — nobody wants to do a student’s work for them.

These tips will help put a decent bibliography and a body of notes and data at your fingertips when you sit down to write up your paper. Although evaluating sources is also a necessary part of doing good research, it will have to wait for its own post, as it’s too big a topic to reduce to a bullet point here. A librarian or your professor can help, especially if you restrict yourself to books and journals available in your university library. Internet sources are trickier, as it takes no effort at all these days to put up a professional-looking website saying whatever you want; until you’re comfortable with the material in your chosen field, it’s best to stick to known sources like Wikipedia and sites endorsed by your library or department, if you use the Internet at all. Remember, though, that until a few years ago, most of us managed to do research with no Internet at all! With typewriters! Walking uphill! In the snow! Barefoot!

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Last Updated on May 21, 2019

How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

How to Communicate Effectively in Any Relationship

For all our social media bravado, we live in a society where communication is seen less as an art, and more as a perfunctory exercise. We spend so much time with people, yet we struggle with how to meaningfully communicate.

If you believe you have mastered effective communication, scan the list below and see whether you can see yourself in any of the examples:

Example 1

You are uncomfortable with a person’s actions or comments, and rather than telling the individual immediately, you sidestep the issue and attempt to move on as though the offending behavior or comment never happened.

You move on with the relationship and develop a pattern of not addressing challenging situations. Before long, the person with whom you are in relationship will say or do something that pushes you over the top and predictably, you explode or withdraw completely from the relationship.

In this example, hard-to-speak truths become never- expressed truths that turn into resentment and anger.

Example 2

You communicate from the head and without emotion. While what you communicate makes perfect sense to you, it comes across as cold because it lacks emotion.

People do not understand what motivates you to say what you say, and without sharing your feelings and emotions, others experience you as rude, cold or aggressive.

You will know this is a problem if people shy away from you, ignore your contributions in meetings or tell you your words hurt. You can also know you struggle in this area if you find yourself constantly apologizing for things you have said.

Example 3

You have an issue with one person, but you communicate your problem to an entirely different person.

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The person in whom you confide lacks the authority to resolve the matter troubling you, and while you have vented and expressed frustration, the underlying challenge is unresolved.

Example 4

You grew up in a family with destructive communication habits and those habits play out in your current relationships.

Because you have never stopped to ask why you communicate the way you do and whether your communication style still works, you may lack understanding of how your words impact others and how to implement positive change.

If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, this article is for you.

Communication can build or decimate worlds and it is important we get it right. Regardless of your professional aspirations or personal goals, you can improve your communication skills if you:

  • Understand your own communication style
  • Tailor your style depending on the needs of the audience
  • Communicate with precision and care
  • Be mindful of your delivery, timing and messenger

1. Understand Your Communication Style

To communicate effectively, you must understand the communication legacy passed down from our parents, grandparents or caregivers. Each of us grew up with spoken and unspoken rules about communication.

In some families, direct communication is practiced and honored. In other families, family members are encouraged to shy away from difficult conversations. Some families appreciate open and frank dialogue and others do not. Other families practice silence about substantive matters, that is, they seldom or rarely broach difficult conversations at all.

Before you can appreciate the nuance required in communication, it helps to know the familial patterns you grew up with.

2. Learn Others Communication Styles

Communicating effectively requires you to take a step back, assess the intended recipient of your communication and think through how the individual prefers to be communicated with. Once you know this, you can tailor your message in a way that increases the likelihood of being heard. This also prevents you from assuming the way you communicate with one group is appropriate or right for all groups or people.

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If you are unsure how to determine the styles of the groups or persons with whom you are interacting, you can always ask them:

“How do you prefer to receive information?”

This approach requires listening, both to what the individuals say as well as what is unspoken. Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson noted that the best communicators are also great listeners.

To communicate effectively from relationship to relationship and situation to situation, you must understand the communication needs of others.

3. Exercise Precision and Care

A recent engagement underscored for me the importance of exercising care when communicating.

On a recent trip to Ohio, I decided to meet up with an old friend to go for a walk. As we strolled through the soccer park, my friend gently announced that he had something to talk about, he was upset with me. His introduction to the problem allowed me to mentally shift gears and prepare for the conversation.

Shortly after introducing the shift in conversation, my friend asked me why I didn’t invite him to the launch party for my business. He lives in Ohio and I live in the D.C. area.

I explained that the event snuck up on me, and I only started planning the invite list three weeks before the event. Due to the last-minute nature of the gathering, I opted to invite people in the DMV area versus my friends from outside the area – I didn’t want to be disrespectful by asking them to travel on such short notice.

I also noted that I didn’t want to be disappointed if he and others declined to come to the event. So I played it safe in terms of inviting people who were local.

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In the moment, I felt the conversation went very well. I also checked in with my friend a few days after our walk, affirmed my appreciation for his willingness to communicate his upset and our ability to work through it.

The way this conversation unfolded exemplified effective communication. My friend approached me with grace and vulnerability. He approached me with a level of curiosity that didn’t put me on my heels — I was able to really listen to what he was saying, apologize for how my decision impacted him and vow that going forward, I would always ask rather than making decisions for him and others.

Our relationship is intact, and I now have information that will help me become a better friend to him and others.

4. Be Mindful of Delivery, Timing and Messenger

Communicating effectively also requires thinking through the delivery of the message one intends to communicate as well as the appropriate time for the discussion.

In an Entrepreneur.com column, VIP Contributor Deep Patel, noted that persons interested in communicating well need to master the art of timing. Patel noted,[1]

“Great comedians, like all great communicators, are able to feel out their audience to determine when to move on to a new topic or when to reiterate an idea.”

Communicating effectively also requires thoughtfulness about the messenger. A person prone to dramatic, angry outbursts should never be called upon to deliver constructive feedback, especially to people whom they do not know. The immediate aftermath of a mass shooting is not the ideal time to talk about the importance of the Second Amendment rights.

Like everyone else, I must work to ensure my communication is layered with precision and care.

It requires precision because words must be carefully tailored to the person with whom you are speaking.

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It requires intentionality because before one communicates, one should think about the audience and what the audience needs in order to hear your message the way you intended it to be communicated.

It requires active listening which is about hearing verbal and nonverbal messages.

Even though we may be right in what we say, how we say it could derail the impact of the message and the other parties’ ability to hear the message.

Communicating with care is also about saying things that the people in our life need to hear and doing so with love.

The Bottom Line

When I left the meeting with my dear friend, I wondered if I was replicating or modeling this level of openness and transparency in the rest of my relationships.

I was intrigued and appreciative. He’d clearly thought about what he wanted to say to me, picked the appropriate time to share his feedback and then delivered it with care. He hit the ball out of the park and I’m hopeful we all do the same.

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Featured photo credit: Kenan Buhic via unsplash.com

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