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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 March 14, 2019

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

7 Questions to Ask in a Job Interview That Will Impress the Interviewer

Recruiters might hold thousands of interviews in their careers and a lot of them are reporting the same thing—that most candidates play it safe with the questions they ask, or have no questions to ask in a job interview at all.

For job applicants, this approach is crazy! This is a job that you’re going to dedicate a lot of hours to and that might have a huge impact on your future career. Don’t throw away the chance to figure out if the position is perfect for you.

Here are 7 killer questions to ask in a job interview that will both impress your counterpart and give you some really useful insights into whether this job will be a dream … or a nightmare.

1. What are some challenges I might come up against this role?

A lesser candidate might ask, “what does a typical day look like in this role?” While this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask in an interview, focusing on potential challenges takes you much further because it indicates that you already are visualizing yourself in the role.

It’s impressive because it shows that you are not afraid of challenges, and you are prepared to strategize a game plan upfront to make sure you succeed if you get the job.

It can also open up a conversation about how you’ve solved problems in the past which can be a reassuring exercise for both you and the hiring manager.

How it helps you:

If you ask the interviewer to describe a typical day, you may get a vibrant picture of all the lovely things you’ll get to do in this job and all the lovely people you’ll get to do them with.

Asking about potential roadblocks means you hear the other side of the story—dysfunctional teams, internal politics, difficult clients, bootstrap budgets and so on. This can help you decide if you’re up for the challenge or whether, for the sake of your sanity, you should respectfully decline the job offer.

2. What are the qualities of really successful people in this role?

Employers don’t want to hire someone who goes through the motions; they want to hire someone who will excel.

Asking this question shows that you care about success, too. How could they not hire you with a dragon-slayer attitude like that?

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How it helps you:

Interviewers hire people who are great people to work with, but the definition of “great people” differs from person to person.

Does this company hire and promote people with a specific attitude, approach, worth ethic or communication style? Are the most successful people in this role strong extroverts who love to talk and socialize when you are studious and reserved? Does the company reward those who work insane hours when you’re happiest in a more relaxed environment?

If so, then this may not be the right match for you.

Whatever the answer is, you can decide whether you have what it takes for the manager to be happy with your performance in this role. And if the interviewer has no idea what success looks like for this position, this is a sign to proceed with extreme caution.

3. From the research I did on your company, I noticed the culture really supports XYZ. Can you tell me more about that element of the culture and how it impacts this job role?

Of course, you could just ask “what is the culture like here? ” but then you would miss a great opportunity to show that you’ve done your research!

Interviewers give BIG bonus point to those who read up and pay attention, and you’ve just pointed out that (a) you’re diligent in your research (b) you care about the company culture and (c) you’re committed to finding a great cultural fit.

How it helps you:

This question is so useful because it lets you pick an element of the culture that you really care about and that will have the most impact on whether you are happy with the organization.

For example, if training and development is important to you, then you need to know what’s on offer so you don’t end up in a dead-end job with no learning opportunities.

Companies often talk a good talk, and their press releases may be full of shiny CSR initiatives and all the headline-grabbing diversity programs they’re putting in place. This is your opportunity to look under the hood and see if the company lives its values on the ground.

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A company that says it is committed to doing the right thing by customers should not judge success by the number of up-sells an employee makes, for instance. Look for consistency, so you aren’t in for a culture shock after you start.

4. What is the promotion path for this role, and how would my performance on that path be measured?

To be clear, you are not asking when you will get promoted. Don’t go there—it’s presumptuous, and it indicates that you think you are better than the role you have applied for.

A career-minded candidate, on the other hand, usually has a plan that she’s working towards. This question shows you have a great drive toward growth and advancement and an intention to stick with the company beyond your current state.

How it helps you:

One word: hierarchy.

All organizations have levels of work and authority—executives, upper managers, line managers, the workforce, and so on. Understanding the hierarchical structure gives you power, because you can decide if you can work within it and are capable of climbing through its ranks, or whether it will be endlessly frustrating to you.

In a traditional pyramid hierarchy, for example, the people at the bottom tend to have very little autonomy to make decisions. This gets better as you rise up through the pyramid, but even middle managers have little power to create policy; they are more concerned with enforcing the rules the top leaders make.

If having a high degree of autonomy and accountability is important to you, you may do better in a flat hierarchy where work teams can design their own way of achieving the corporate goals.

5. What’s the most important thing the successful candidate could accomplish in their first 3 months/6 months/year?

Of all the questions to ask in a job interview, this one is impressive because it shows that you identify with and want to be a successful performer, and not just an average one.

Here, you’re drilling down into what the company needs, and needs quite urgently, proving that you’re all about adding value to the organization and not just about what’s in it for you.

How it helps you:

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Most job descriptions come with 8, 10 or 12 different job responsibilities and a lot of them with be boilerplate or responsibilities that someone in HR thinks are associated with this role. This question gives you a better sense of which responsibilities are the most important—and they may not be what initially attracted you to the role.

If you like the idea of training juniors, for example, but success is judged purely on your sales figures, then is this really the job you thought you were applying for?

This question will also give you an idea of what kind of learning curve you’re expected to have and whether you’ll get any ramp-up time before getting down to business. If you’re the type of person who likes to jump right in and get things done, for instance, you may not be thrilled to hear that you’re going to spend the first three months shadowing a peer.

6. What do you like about working here?

This simple question is all about building rapport with the interviewer. People like to talk about themselves, and the interviewer will be flattered that you’re interested in her opinions.

Hopefully, you’ll find some great connection points that the two of you share. What similar things drive you head into the office each day? How will you fit into the culture?

How it helps you:

You can learn a lot from this question. Someone who genuinely enjoys his job will be able to list several things they like, and their answers will sound passionate and sincere. If not….well, you might consider that a red flag.

Since you potentially can learn a lot about the company culture from this question, it’s a good idea to figure out upfront what’s important to you. Maybe you’re looking for a hands-off boss who values independent thought and creativity? Maybe you work better in environments that move at a rapid, exciting pace?

Whatever’s important to you, listen carefully and see if you can find any common ground.

7. Based on this interview, do you have any questions or concerns about my qualifications for the role?

What a great closing question to ask in a job interview! It shows that you’re not afraid of feedback—in fact, you are inviting it. Not being able to take criticism is a red flag for employers, who need to know that you’ll act on any “coaching moments” with a good heart.

As a bonus, asking this question shows that you are really interested in the position and wish to clear up anything that may be holding the company back from hiring you.

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How it helps you:

What a devious beast this question is! On the surface, it looks straightforward, but it’s actually giving you four key pieces of information.

First, is the manager capable of giving you feedback when put on the spot like this? Some managers are scared of giving feedback, or don’t think it’s important enough to bother outside of a formal performance appraisal. Do you want to work for a boss like that? How will you improve if no one is telling you what you did wrong?

Second, can the manager give feedback in a constructive way without being too pillowy or too confrontational? It’s unfair to expect the interviewer to have figured out your preferred way of receiving feedback in the space of an interview, but if she come back with a machine-gun fire of shortcomings or one of those corporate feedback “sandwiches” (the doozy slipped between two slices of compliment), then you need to ask yourself, can you work with someone who gives feedback like that?

Third, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about before you leave the interview. This gives you the chance to make a final, tailored sales pitch so you can convince the interviewer that she should not be worried about those things.

Fourth, you get to learn the things the hiring manager is concerned about period. If turnover is keeping him up at night, then your frequent job hopping might get a lot of additional scrutiny. If he’s facing some issues with conflict or communication, then he might raise concerns regarding your performance in this area.

Listen carefully: the concerns that are being raised about you might actually be a proxy for problems in the wider organization.

Making Your Interview Work for You

Interviews are a two-way street. While it is important to differentiate yourself from every other candidate, understand that convincing the interviewer you’re the right person for the role goes hand-in-hand with figuring out if the job is the right fit for you.

Would you feel happy in a work environment where the people, priorities, culture and management style were completely at odds with the way you work? Didn’t think so!

More Resources About Job Interviews

Featured photo credit: Amy Hirschi via unsplash.com

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