You’ve had your first class of the summer term, and your instructor has assigned a research paper. What are your plans for this week?
- Nothing. After all, this paper is not due until next month. That’s a long time away.
- Feel anxious about the idea of a research paper and nervously glance through the assignment over and over again as you try to think of a topic you can write on in four weeks.
- Immediately rush to the library and start gathering up sources in the first database you find.
- None of the above.
I hope your answer was ‘4’ because none of the options above will really help you make progress on your summer research.
For shortened semesters, it’s important to get an early start on your research. Although you may have the same number of hours in the classroom as in a regular semester, you certainly don’t have the same amount of time outside of class to plan, research, write, and edit. So the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be.
However, don’t confuse nervous busy work with progress. Students often worry about the research paper in lieu of actually working on it. One of the best ways to fight such nervousness is to get started on the project.
However, mad activity without a purpose is also not a good plan. Students sometimes will print off lots of articles so that they’ll have sources for their paper when they choose to write it weeks later. In many cases, they simply end up with piles of paper sitting on their desk, articles with information that’s not terribly helpful, but they no time left to find more sources.
So what’s the best way? I don’t claim to have the secret to that, but here’s one approach that I think will work:
Look at the research assignment. Make sure you understand what you are to do. If you have been assigned a topic or already know one that interests you, take a few days to think over various approaches. You might want to do the following:
- brainstorm ideas
- journal your thoughts on the topic
- do some initial research. Look at reference materials such as encyclopedias. Use the database Facts on File to get an overview of some of the topics that might be of interest to you. You probably won’t use any of this information as sources in your paper, but you’ll get some background information that will help you understand your topic and help you form your thesis.
If you don’t have an idea for a topic, leaf through the table of contents of your text and see if there are ideas that interest you. Then, as above, read some general reference articles on the topics that are the most promising.
By the end of the first week, have a working thesis statement ready. You’re almost ready to start looking for sources.
BUT do one more thing first: Take out your computer or just a plain piece of paper and write out your argument first. Make sure that you feel strongly enough about the topic and know enough general information that you’ll be able to choose sources wisely.
NOW, you’re ready for week 2.