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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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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

    7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

    What do I want to do with my life? It’s a question all of us think about at one point or another.

    For some, the answer comes easily. For others, it takes a lifetime to figure out.

    It’s easy to just go through the motions and continue to do what’s comfortable and familiar. But for those of you who seek fulfillment, who want to do more, these questions will help you paint a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life.

    1. What are the things I’m most passionate about?

    The first step to living a more fulfilling life is to think about the things that you’re passionate about.

    What do you love? What fulfills you? What “work” do you do that doesn’t feel like work? Maybe you enjoy writing, maybe you love working with animals or maybe you have a knack for photography.

    The point is, figure out what you love doing, then do more of it.

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    2. What are my greatest accomplishments in life so far?

    Think about your past experiences and the things in your life you’re most proud of.

    How did those accomplishments make you feel? Pretty darn good, right? So why not try and emulate those experiences and feelings?

    If you ran a marathon once and loved the feeling you had afterwards, start training for another one. If your child grew up to be a star athlete or musician because of your teachings, then be a coach or mentor for other kids.

    Continue to do the things that have been most fulfilling for you.

    3. If my life had absolutely no limits, what would I choose to have and what would I choose to do?

    Here’s a cool exercise: Think about what you would do if you had no limits.

    If you had all the money and time in the world, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you spend time with?

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    These answers can help you figure out what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t mean you need millions of dollars to be happy though.

    What it does mean is answering these questions will help you set goals to reach certain milestones and create a path toward happiness and fulfillment. Which leads to our next question …

    4. What are my goals in life?

    Goals are a necessary component to set you up for a happy future. So answer these questions:

    Once you figure out the answers to each of these, you’ll have a much better idea of what you should do with your life.

    5. Whom do I admire most in the world?

    Following the path of successful people can set you up for success.

    Think about the people you respect and admire most. What are their best qualities? Why do you respect them? What can you learn from them?

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    You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.[1] So don’t waste your time with people who hold you back from achieving your dreams.

    Spend more time with happy, successful, optimistic people and you’ll become one of them.

    6. What do I not like to do?

    An important part of figuring out what you want to do with your life is honestly assessing what you don’t want to do.

    What are the things you despise? What bugs you the most about your current job?

    Maybe you hate meetings even though you sit through 6 hours of them every day. If that’s the case, find a job where you can work more independently.

    The point is, if you want something to change in your life, you need to take action. Which leads to our final question …

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    7. How hard am I willing to work to get what I want?

    Great accomplishments never come easy. If you want to do great things with your life, you’re going to have to make a great effort. That will probably mean putting in more hours the average person, getting outside your comfort zone and learning as much as you can to achieve as much as you can.

    But here’s the cool part: it’s often the journey that is the most fulfilling part. It’s during these seemingly small, insignificant moments that you’ll often find that “aha” moments that helps you answer the question,

    “What do I want to do with my life?”

    So take the first step toward improving your life. You won’t regret it.

    Featured photo credit: Andrew Ly via unsplash.com

    Reference

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