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Graduate Research Tips

Last updated on Jul 27, 2023

Graduate Research Tips

Getting started can seem daunting. Maybe as an undergrad research was always a bit of a mystery. At the graduate level the tricks you learned as an undergrad may or may not work for you. Graduate research is different than undergraduate research in the ways your program will probably be asking you to engage with the work. At the graduate level having good research is designed to do a couple of things.

  1. Show that you know your stuff in a particular field. While some interesting searches might have been enough as an undergrad, at the graduate level you are expected to be somewhat of a scholar. This means knowing what came before you. Who are major voices in your field? What are important theories or ideas that have maybe shifted how things are done or thought about. Your research should include both breath and depth. (More on that soon.)
  2. Show that you can engage with ideas and contribute something to the field. This might seem a daunting task, but part of your job as a scholar is to be a part of a larger discussion. What original idea do you have to contribute? What idea might have previous scholars missed? How will you know this, you might ask? Again, this is why research is important. To know what is happening, you will have to read a lot. To know what you want to say, you will have to think a lot about what has been done and what hasn't been done. When you can articulate to yourself a general sense of what has happened in the last 40 some years in a field, you will begin to see what hasn't been said yet. (P.S. this is why Lit. Reviews and Annotated Bibs. are important. More on those here.)This is the really exciting part of research, and where you might think of something that is an original contribution. Another way to think about it is being able to create an intervention in scholarly conversations. For example, maybe Y's theory has never been applied to X's work. What does that do? How does it make us see a topic, subject, object differently?


Getting Started Finding Research

    • Take advantage of the library’s research guides. They’re organized by topic and include links to databases and academic journals CCA has access to, as well as helpful open access databases. Not all databases are created equal. Make sure you are using a database that is appropriate for your subject and field.
    • Consider what kind of sources are most appropriate for your research. This could range from scholarly articles to books, textbooks, newspaper articles, legal documents, press releases, websites, and all kinds of multimedia
    • Experiment with your search terms. Ever put in a subject and very little comes up? 9 times out of 10 when this happens, it's not that nothing has been written on it, but most likely, you have put in search terms that aren't good search terms. A couple key rules to improve your results:

      • Make sure you are using good keywords. What does that mean? You want words that represent the field, but that aren't too specific or too broad. Keywords are also used to index things. Think of keywords like Insagram hashtags. If you have good keywords your searches will be more accurate. Good examples of keywords include author or artist's names, names of movements, general field names, time periods, places, or names of methodologies.

      • Never use full sentences. Why? Most databases use what is known as a Boolean search. This means it takes A + B and will search for everything that contains A + B. If you include common words like "the," "and" "in" "about" "during" "with" these common words will be included in your search and will skew your results.

      • Numbers matter. 30,000 hits or more probably mean your search is too general. 45 hits probably means your search terms are too narrow or specific. Anywhere between a few hundred to a thousand or so, is a good general area to land.

    • Keep publication dates in mind. If you’re writing about 17th century Japanese art, of course, it’s important that some of your sources are that old. But scholarship (even around history) is constantly changing, so it’s a good idea to be aware of when your source was published, what people in your field are saying about it, and whether anything more current in the field has been published since.

    • Check out footnotes and bibliographies. We all start with general resources when we’re unfamiliar with a topic, but the sources cited (even on Wikipedia!) can lead you to more specific, often academic publications.
      • Questions to ask: Has the cited author published any other works relevant to your research? Who or what do they cite? (This is a great way to help figure out important voices that are happening in a field.)

    • Archives can be a good source of information and often include unpublished materials. Make sure to read the policy regarding requesting materials on the archive’s website and prepare appropriately in advance of visiting.

    • Talk to an instructional services librarian. They can direct you to specific resources that are appropriate for your topic.
      • Teri Dowling:
      • Daniel Ransom:
      • Annemarie Haar:
      • Eric Phetteplace:

    • Talk to your advisor, faculty, other grad students, and tons of other people! Even those not in your field! It’s a great way to get out of the echo chamber of your own mind, and folks studying different things can often offer perspectives and angles on your topic you may not have thought of.