Academic Research Projects: Start at the Right Place

College students often fear the research project. However, in truth, the research project is an opportunity to delve deeply into a domain of knowledge, learn new facts, and acquire an appreciation for perspectives that often come through no other venue, other than the research project.

Research projects culminate in delivery of a complement of arguments that are founded in expert knowledge. Whether the final presentation medium is an essay, audio-visual construction, or oral presentation, the research project is project unique to academic work. Students who seek educational value from the project–not just an earned grade–present themselves with a challenge that allows them to explore areas of interest to them, of direct value to their major discipline, or are novel and not likely to be pursued in other courses.

Research projects may come in the form of a term or semester graded assignment or they may be a simple as one of the four or five essays that are required during the course. Those that are presented as end-of-term projects will likely require greater effort and a longer presentation, while those that are monthly efforts may be a simple four-page paper.

After selecting a subject and narrowing the focus to a specific topic, the student must begin the research process. This is the first milestone in the project, and it can be the most critical. It is at this point that the student must ask from where the research material will come. If you are a student reading this article, please do not fall into the trap of taking the familiar route; do not use the Google–or worse, Bing–search engine, unless the topic that will be researching requires only common, popular, current data. Most academic research projects will be created so as to require that students explore and consider the relevant domain literature, and this literature will likely not be found in a popular search engine. To acquire academic research material, one must enter an academic library.

For students who are pursuing their first few research projects, an academic library can seem a daunting place. While the research process is a solitary activity, the academic library is not a lonely place. Research librarians stand ready to assist students, to help them locate and understand academic literature. In addition to the research librarians’ services, I recommend Thomas Mann’s excellent book, The Oxford Guide to Library Research.

Students will have to consider written and graphical materials that may seem foreign. Learning to understand how academics present their material is a skill in an of itself, but with practice, this skill will become second nature. Students should not be dissuaded by the manner in which academics write. Academics often seek to be precise, not obtuse (although their writing may seem to be obtuse without being precise to the uninitiated). Ask your professor for guidance if you have difficulty understanding the details of your selected research materials.

I would be patently foolish to advise you that all research projects are enjoyable. However, I do urge you to find as much enjoyment in the learning process as you can as you conduct your research. Use your librarians and faculty for guidance, and fully take advantage of all of the resources that your institution offers.


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