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Advice for Students: How to Write Research Papers that Rock!

Advice for Students: How to Write Research Papers that Rock!
Research papers that rock!

No assignment save the comprehensive final exam seems to engender such fear in students as the research paper, especially the open topic research paper. Faced with the prospect of writing 5, 8, 12, or more pages on a topic of their choosing, a lot of students panic, unsure what to write about and how to research it. Far too often, students endanger their grades and even their academic futures by turning to online essay sites or other sources and copying what they assume is decent work (it rarely is, of course). I’ve even had students hand in my work as their own!

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One of the reasons students balk at research paper is that writing them is a skill that most college professors assume their students have, while few high school teachers teach it — leaving students to work out for themseves how exactly to proceed. Add to that the fact that students often take a range of courses they have little or no interest in to satisfy their general requirements, and it’s no wonder that students often feel hung out to dry when it comes to writing research papers.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Looked at properly, research papers can be a great way to deepen your understanding of your chosen field, and may be the first step towards developing a specialization that will serve you well as you move into your career or advanced education.

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There are a lot of things you can do to help make research papers work for you — and get a decent grade in the process:

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  • Write about something you’re passionate about. Figure out the link between the class you’re taking and your educational and career goals. If you hope to earn an MBA and find yourself stuck in a required Women’s Studies class, write about workplace harassment, or the impact of equal opportunity laws. If you are pre-med and have to take anthropology or sociology, write about cultural differences in notions of healing, or about access to health care for members of different classes. If you”re an accounting major… change your major. No, just kidding — if your major is accounting and you have to take literature, write about Franz Kafka (an insurance company clerk by day) or Wallace Stevens (also in insurance — there’s a lesson in here somewhere…).
  • Write a strong thesis. Your thesis is your statement of intent: what do you intend to demonstrate or prove in your paper. Here’s some types of theses that will grab your (and your professor’s) attention:
  1. Challenge a misconception: Use your paper to challenge the received wisdom, the stuff “everybody knows”. E.g. “Lots of people think [A] but really [not-A]”
  2. Find an unlikely connection: Use an idea from science to illuminate a concept in literature, or vice versa. For example: “Neils Bohr’s theory of the structure of the atom provides one way of looking at the relationship between Hamlet and the play’s secondary characters.” The idea here is to find a surprising new way of looking at or thinking about a concept.
  3. Rehabilitate a villain. Defend a historical personage or literary character widely assumed to have been “a bad guy”. The biologist Steven Jay Gould was a master of this, writing about people generally portrayed as the enemies of scientific progress — Lamarck, Bishop Usher, Pope Urban VIII — as exemplars of the cutting-edge science of their day. Make your reader take an unfairly (or even fairly) maligned character or person seriously. (Note: I’d avoid using this approach for Hitler; no matter how well you write, it’s unlikely anyone will appreeciate your efforts to make Hitler seem like a good chap.)
  4. Reframe a classic work in light of today’s technology, social structure, or culture. What kind of woman would Cinderella or Jane Austen’s Emma be in today’s corporate world? What could Newton or Julius Caesar have done with a MacBook Pro?
  5. Reframe today’s world in light of the technological, social, or cultural context of a classic. What would Julius Caesar think of Jack Welch or Bill Gates? What would Johannes Kepler make of string theory? What would Jane Austen think of today’s career woman?
  • Use yourself as a source. Use your own life experiences to illustrate the points you’re making. If you are writing about witchcraft and your grandmother was a Oaxacan healer, talk about that; if you are taking accounting 101 and your father ran a successful dry cleaning business, talk about that; if you are taking Poli Sci and you successfully ran for class president, talk about that. Use your own experiences to make your writing immediate and lively — and to keep yourself engaged in the act of writing. (Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?)
  • Consult the experts. The Internet makes it possible to directly reach people we’d have never thought possible even a decade ago. Google the leading voice in the field you’re writing about: a professor of chemistry at MIT, a leadership guru, a corporate anthropologist at Intel, and so on — chances are you’ll come across an email address, or at least a mailing address. Write to them, explain your project, and ask a few questions. The worst that can happen is they’ll ignore your request (so write a few people for backup). An easy trade-off, though, for being able to back up your argument with a nobel laureate’s support.
  • Choose your audience. Never, ever, write only for your professor. Write as if you were explaining your topic to a friend or family member, or to the President of the United States. Write as if your work was going to be a feature article in Time magazine, or as if you were submitting it to the leading academic journal in your field. Always choose an audience to write for, which will give you both a standard to evaluate your writing against (“would mom get this?”) and the incentive to write clearly and at the appropriate level. Writing as if your professor was the only one likely to read your paper (even if s/he is) is the shortest path to stuffy, boring writing that will engage neither your professor or, most likely, you.
  • Writing a research paper is work, there’s no getting around that. But it doesn’t have to be a chore — it can be, with a little thought, work you enjoy pouring yourself into. The trick is to give yourself something to write about that reflects your interests and truly fascinates you, something that you would want to know more about even if you hadn’t been assigned a paper.

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    The ideas above are a start — what tips do you have to share to help make writing less of a task to get through and more of an experience to enjoy?

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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