How to start research at university

What's involved in research?

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If you've never researched before, it can be difficult to know where to start. There are a number of different processes that make up a research study, and it's important that these are completed in the right order: there's no point in deciding what research methods to use before you have identified a question to answer.

There's a list of the stages involved in research below. These are the necessary stages for both qualitative and quantitative studies: the 'data' generated in research study could be numerical, or it could be responses to interview questions - either way the 'data' will need to be sorted, organised and interpreted before it can written up.

1. Choosing a topic A research topic could be something that interests you personally, an area identified in existing research studies, or be suggested by your tutor.
2. Start searching the literature A literature search will tell you what's already known about your chosen topic, and identify research areas that are still to be explored.
3. Narrowing the topic If your topic is very broad - for example, you might wish to investigate the economic impact of obesity - you'll need to narrow it down so it becomes achievable in terms of time and resources. Your obesity study could perhaps be narrowed down to look at NHS spending on obesity, a study of days lost due to obesity-related illness, or an investigation of how much the NHS spends on obesity drugs in a year.
4. Defining a question Asking a good question is trickier than it sounds. You need a question that is neither too broad (are we alone in the universe?), or too narrow (does my cat like tuna?). Questions that are too broad are impossible to answer, and questions that are too narrow are of no interest to anyone other than the researcher.
5. Review the literature Now you know what question you are attempting to answer, you can return to the literature to find out what else has been written on your topic. The previous research will also identify possible research methods you could use.
6. Decide on research design and methods You'll need to decide on the type of study best suited to answering your question, and carefully plan exactly how you'll go about answering it.
7. Generate or collect data This is the fun bit! This is when you get to carry out your research - be it interviewing, carrying out an experiment, or whatever.
8. Data analysis and interpretation Once you have your data, you'll need to think carefully about what it's telling you - and most importantly, you'll need to decide whether your data can answer your question.
9. Write up You'll want to tell the world about your discoveries, and a good researcher must also be a great written communicator.
10. Publish If your research is good enough - and if you're very lucky - you may end up with your name in print!

Recommended Further Reading

Action point:

Look through the list of stages in the research process above. You'll find mondofacto study skills courses on this site that will help you with all the stages in the research process. Browse the site to find the courses you feel would be most helpful to you.

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