Navigating your research journey

 “It’s a dangerous business, student, starting out your research. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, probably.


Pick a topic

If a wizard turned up at your door and offered you a choice of three different quests, you wouldn’t rush into picking one. Maybe your assignment options feel less exciting, but the same rules apply; when you first choose your topic, give every option due consideration. Do a rough plan of your ideas in response to two or three possibilities, and then make your choice on which you’ll be able to do best. Your future self will thank you when you reach the ‘This is so bad’ stage and can avoid talking yourself into starting over on something new.

Narrow the topic

The next step on your mission, having chosen to accept it, is figuring out exactly where you’re going. Once you have your question, note down some of your initial thoughts:

  • Why is this an interesting or important subject?
  • What are your current opinions on the topic?
  • What major points do you think you should include?
  • What is your provisional thesis/ what conclusion do you think you’ll reach?

At this stage nothing is final, as your quest(ion) might be unpredictable, but asking yourself the above will give you a better idea of what you’re looking for in your research— and could be helpful in structuring a plan or introduction later.

Check your reading list

The wise woman of your village has been prophesising about this inevitable quest for weeks, and gave you some helpful pointers as to what you’ll need in the form of your core reading list. If you actually read everything the first time round, picking out which material will be useful for this assignment will be easy. If not, pray to the great god Google for some sneaky summaries to point you in the right direction. Whatever happens, make sure you have a good grip on your primary reading before you go any further.

Once you’re on top of that, check the suggested secondary reading (it was a very helpful, very academically orientated wise woman). It’s worth reading this even if it’s not enough in itself to impress your reader, because it’s a good starting point for research keywords. Consider:

  • Who wrote the support material, and what else have they written?
  • Where were they published; what journal, or book?
  • What key concepts, in the title or text itself, might be relevant to you?
  • Check the citations, as a short cut to other key texts on the topic

Search strategy

Your search strategy is like your compass, to get you started and then keep you on the right path. Use the keywords you picked out from your reading list, plus some tips from the Library on search strategy, simple and advanced to find further material that will be interesting to you on your assigned journey.

Initial bibliography

There’s no point getting out 15 books right at the beginning of your research, as most of them won’t be useful to you. It’s often a better idea to pick a few, the first points to be plotted on to your map so that you don’t get off track pursuing a line of research you don’t need. Your initial bibliography may be mostly books from the Library, which can be refined into more specific chapters and then used to find relevant articles later.

If you do see books that you think will be interesting but aren’t sure of, then try using the My Library list function to keep track of them.

Start reading

You’re ready to start your quest and set out on the road: hopefully with your feet firmly under you. As you read, expand and build on your original bibliography, keeping a list of referenced texts, authors and ideas that might be useful when you continue reading.

Make sure as you read that you’re taking good notes, and that you record the useful texts that you read in the format you will submit everything, to save time later.

Explore topic

By the time you’ve finished with your initial bibliography, you’ll hopefully have found the good stuff in your reading and are half way to Erebor. Though you’re probably feeling the strain now, persevere! Consult the useful sources you’ve been keeping track of and read through your pick of those as the last step of your research journey; once done, you’ll have a story minstrels would sing odes about. Unfortunately, you’re a student and not a singer, so your ode is actually going to take the form of a written assignment. But continue with the confidence of one well prepared, and know that the complicated bit is over.

Image: Mountain Path/Louis Vest/CC BY-NC 2.0

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