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How to start research at university

What is research?

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Quite simply, research is what we do when we want to find the answer to a question.

At university, you might be given a question to answer - perhaps for a written assignment, in which case you'll need to research what has already been written this topic. Or you may want to generate new knowledge - perhaps for a research project or dissertation. You'll probably get the chance to do both kinds of research at university.

When many people think about research, they often imagine a scientific research study, probably being conducted in a laboratory, by men in white coats - on mice. But scientific research is just one kind of research, and research forms the basis of knowledge in all subject areas. Whatever subject you're studying at university, you'll almost certainly to do some research at some stage. What constitutes 'research' depends very much on the subject area: historical research may involve reading documents; perhaps examining photographs, diaries and books; interviewing witnesses to past events (recent history only!), or maybe looking at archaeological evidence.

Researching as a sociologist might involve observing the behaviour of gangs - perhaps even by joining a gang (this is known as covert observation). An economics student, however, might apply different statistical tests to a data set, and look for relationships between variables (birth weight and social class for example), and a medical student might try to compare the effectiveness of two drugs.

Whatever area your subject area, the 'model' for a research study should look something like this:

Start with a question...offer a theory in answer to the question...test the theory...depending on the results of the test, accept or reject the theory.

Get the idea? 'research' can take many forms, but one thing remains the same: research is done to find answers to questions.

Activity: what research is done in your subject area? - 10 minutes

1. Browse your university's website to find out about the research carried out by staff from your department - staff home pages are a good place to start.

2. Alternatively, have chat with a friendly academic or PhD student, and find out about their research interests.

3. If your department isn't actively engaged in research, have a look at the journals that cover your subject, to see what research is being done in your subject area.

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