Research Strategies

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First Year, Transfer, & Student Success Librarian

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Samantha Hilton

What is research?

Research is formalized curiosity; it is poking and prying with a purpose.

-Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, p. 91, 1942.

Research is discovery. It's finding, analyzing, and interpreting information to help communicate ideas. Research is a scholarly conversation. Research is also sometimes time-consuming and a bit tedious. 

Research is, what we librarians like to call, an iterative process. This means that it builds on itself: how your research is going to go depends on how it's already going. What your next steps are depend on what you're doing now and how that is working for you. It's not linear, not predictable, and should look different for each assignment that you're tasked with.

This guide will focus mostly on delivering tips for helping you find sources to use in your assignments, but this is just part of the research process. Before you dive into the databases, it's a good idea to have done some brainstorming and "presearching" of your research topic. 


The brainstorming phase of research is to help you focus your topic. Sometimes you start with a topic that is too broad for the length of paper that you have (i.e., if your topic is climate change, for a 5-page paper, you're likely going to have to narrow that down a lot). Sometimes your starting point is too narrow (i.e., if your topic is how the key influences choreography in one specific act of the Romeo and Juliet score by Prokofiev for a 30-page paper, that might be too niche). So how do you find the right topic for the assignment?

One strategy to use is to just brain dump: open up a new Word document or grab a clean sheet of paper and a pen, set a timer for 5 minutes, and just jot down everything that you have in your brain on the topic. Once that is done, take a step back and look for connections between what you've written down. Somewhere in that brainstorm are both your topic and a useful list of keywords to bring to the databases.

For more help, check out this video on Developing a Research Question

Collect Some Background Information

Sometimes, this phase of the research process is called "presearch." This is the phase of the process where you find out what you already know about your topic and, more importantly, you discover what you don't know. 

If you did a brainstorming activity before this, take a look at your brainstorm document. Are there any gaps that you wish you knew more about? Is it pretty sparse? That's okay! Google your topic and anything related. See what comes up on Wikipedia and in the top searches. Explore what you don't know and jot down any useful phrases. For example, maybe in this phase, you find out that precarious work is a synonym of gig economy and you think that will be useful for your paper. In this case, both of these phrases would be keywords for your assignment.

In general, the point of this phase is to arm yourself with enough background knowledge of your topic that you can use to generate useful keywords. Hopefully these keywords that you bring to the databases will help you find the most relevant sources for your assignment.