Around halfway through the semester, many graduate students are beginning or have already begun research for their term papers. From narrowing down a topic to finding primary and secondary sources to trying to understand those sources, below are a few strategies towards beginning a research project.
Kiri: When thinking about my final project for a class, one of the hardest things for me is coming up with a concrete idea for what I want to write about. While normally the class itself can provide a good baseline (i.e, in my class about Gender in the Mediterranean, I probably wouldn’t want to write about generals from the American Revolution), there is still a lot of leeway for where one can go. Within this space, where I feel like I can write about almost anything, it can sometimes feel like I’m staring into an abyss of possibilities—and that feeling can be quite paralyzing. I’ve found that what helps my research is to start broadly about a topic I’m interested in, and then whittle my ideas down from there. I might home in on a specific region and time period, but I try not to form any research around any specific questions just yet. Rather, I delve into an idea that I can build upon. Once I’ve done some of this research, then I start to think about questions I think I would want answered and start to explore how to answer these questions.
Another way to help form your final topic is to reach out to your professor and see if they have any ideas that might help you. Talking to your professor, who is normally well versed in the field already, will also help you to establish a solid foundation for your research, and they might have some good ideas for how you can move forward if you get stuck. Overall, it helps to begin thinking about your idea early, but you also want to make sure you don’t limit yourself too much. Reach out whenever you feel stuck or need help, and remember to always research what you’re interested in—if you’re writing about something you’re passionate about, it can really shine through the paper
Chelsi: A library is generally pretty straightforward. You go online and search for your topic in whatever search bar your library uses. You find some sources there, and then go to the library (COVID permitting) and pick up the books you wrote down the codes for. Now let’s back up.
For me, moving from undergrad to grad school went from professor’s asking for six sources maximum to twenty sources minimum. Learning how to really utilize and understand what resources my library actually offers was tantamount to actually getting to the sources I need. I heard “talk to your librarian!” plenty of times as an undergrad, but as a graduate student, it actually makes all the difference. They can teach you how to actually use that search bar to its fullest potential—or tell you that it’s actually the worst system in the world and you really should be using this other much more intuitive system that’s hidden on the website. Setting up a meeting or going to one of the many lectures they have about using the library showed me how to actually use a database search and learn how to find and recognize primary sources from secondary sources. The history librarian at FSU has set up a specific page for historians to find sources, which I would have not known about without actually talking to him
Also, I learned pretty quickly that no matter how good a search system is, that nothing beats actually perusing the stacks. Instead of focusing on what I already knew I wanted, I take my time to look at the books around it. The organization system isn’t just there to make you wander all over in confusion, but to place books together on the same topic. Once I found out what combination of letters and numbers that the Glorious Revolution books all used, it became much easier to go in and get what I needed.
Use your library, but most importantly, make sure that you use your librarian and make them do some of the legwork for you.
Clayton: The process of writing papers or articles in graduate school will take up most of your time each semester, since these are usually the main focus of your courses and program in general. These papers will require a lot of academic materials to produce graduate level work, so the more resources that you have to pull from the better off you will be in the long run, and the less stressed you will be when trying to find that perfect quote or the piece of information that’s just right to support your thesis. Besides books, articles will end up being the main source of information, and in my experience one of the best databases to find these articles online is JSTOR. Most colleges and universities (as far as I know) give students access to JSTOR through their library, so any student can use JSTOR. JSTOR is an online database that has thousands of academic articles from thousands of authors, allowing students to search for any keywords or subjects that they can think of. JSTOR also allows you to narrow your search by dates, going back into the 1800s in some cases, which means that you can find primary source articles on JSTOR, which is a major benefit for anyone writing an academic paper. However, while JSTOR can be a great starting point for your research, the sheer number of articles can make it difficult to narrow down your ideas. On the other hand, some searches that are too specific can give you hardly any useful articles. JSTOR can be difficult to work with sometimes, but overall it is an amazing resource for anyone looking for academic information.
Dragana: When you run into a wall while looking for sources and you feel like your search is not producing anything usable, WorldCat is a great resource that is readily available for students through their university. WolrdCat is a network of library content and services that range from books, articles, archival material, maps, and much more. It searches all the libraries in its network at once to locate all the libraries that carry your particular source and shows you the closest ones to you. You are able to check out the item and have it shipped to your university or view it online, for instance e-books are readily available as well as articles. For electronic versions, the search will tell you if an item is downloadable and it usually is for articles. If you are doing research on a topic or area that is not very popular—for example, early modern Balkans—WorldCat is a great resource. When I was doing my own research on early modern Balkans that turned up very few books in my university’s library, WorldCat provided me with literature that I didn’t even know was available. There were works by scholars that I have used in previous projects, but the number of new scholars and works that it showed me was amazing. It gave me results that were closer to my topic than most other databases I am used to using. I would highly encourage everyone to at least take a look at WorldCat and just explore what it has to offer.
Frank: One great way to find sources and information about a research topic is using the footnotes and bibliographies of related works. Mining these sources can help put you on the right track for where to find relevant information, identify kinds of primary source data that is available or often used in studies of the topic under investigation, as well as give you a better understanding of the relationship between the different literature. A good way to start is finding several books or articles that are either relatively authoritative in the field or, for whatever reason, have a great literature discussion section. From here, you can investigate those other works mentioned and look into their primary and secondary source information. Another great way to see how literature connects to each other is using Google Scholar. Google Scholar allows you to search works and identifies other works that cited them. It also provides a convenient ‘related works’ search that can yield helpful results. Sometimes databases or library searches, especially virtual only, yield unwieldy results that can overwhelm a project early on. Using the footnotes and bibliography as a guide can be helpful when starting out on a project.
Stephen: “It’s all Greek to me?” I have heard this joke by too many colleagues who see me attempting to translate ancient Greek passages for various research projects. Learning and knowing one or multiple languages is typically a requirement for undergraduate and graduate programs. Understanding another language is vital to your own research as there is a lot of terrific literature in foreign and ancient languages.
The question is: How do you work through and comprehend a text that is not in your native language for research? There are various approaches to working through a translation. If you have some previous knowledge of the language and a good dictionary with some free time than you may have all you need. The major problem is when you run into a language with which you have limited or no experience in. Of course, you could throw the text you wanted to read into Google translation or a similar translating engine. Typically, a Google translated text is fine for basic understanding, but Google tends to miss certain nuances in other languages. What I have found to be the best approach in translating a language I do not know is to ask someone else! In my own experience, my colleagues were more than willing to help me through a language which they have more skill in translating. If you do not have this luxury the next best thing is to go to your school’s language department. The students and teachers in university language departments are more than willing to help you through a translation!