While all academic writing involves research of some order, the Research Essay has a very particular function. Here, the focus is very much on self-directed study. The student is expected to work autonomously, conducting an original piece of research from start to finish.
This means going out and finding relevant and original (first-hand) sources, visiting libraries, museums, archives, scouring online databases, and so on; doing whatever is necessary to locate the information you need. In consequence, one of the first things you need to consider is what kinds of information you will need and where it is to be found. This will of course depend upon the subject matter. Hence selecting a good research topic is the first priority.
Because you are going to have to do the leg-work in finding sources, it is essential you alight on a research topic for which there is available evidence/information. Do not make life difficult for yourself, by picking a topic that is obscure, on which little has been written. You will lose a good deal of time searching for material. As the same time, steer clear of overly covered subjects, because there will likely be nothing new to say on them. This can lead to equal amounts of time lost, ploughing through reams of information, seeking some unique through-line.
You need to strike a balance between a topic that is adequately addresses in scholarly research and one which is original enough that there remains some scope to say something new.
Even though a Research Essay is intended to be an independent piece of study, there is nothing wrong in seeking expert advice in the process. Your tutor will be able to advise you on what kinds of questions might befit your topic, help lead you in the right direction. They will surely be aware of which topics have ample resources to hand and which are less well covered.
One of the best ways to identify a good research topic is to look in academic journals. Many articles will recommend areas for future research, at the conclusion of the document. So, find a journal article which is relevant to your field of interest and turn to the last page. This is very quick to do and yields much potential benefit. If you did this with a few articles, you would soon begin to see emerge a constellation of related concerns which might, when synthesised, point toward a specific kind of question or problem. At this stage you know you will be able to find appropriate research because all the articles you just looked at necessarily cover elements of the topic you have extracted from them. Hence a lot of the ground work has already been completed after only one hour in the library.
This has an additional advantage. Teachers are always impressed when a student includes journal articles in their work. This is because academic journals represent the latest findings in the field and are thus the site of the most relevant and accurate information available. Also, it takes more initiative to seek out journal articles; as well as more technical proficiency to read them. Unlike many academic books, journal articles tend not to account for a lay readership. They presume specialist knowledge and are composed accordingly. This should not put you off however; after reading one article, you will have gotten to grips with the particulars of the convention.
Now that you have found the makings of a topic, you need to hone it down. A good research topic is one which may be formed as a specific question. You do not want to cast the net too wide. That said, you may want to begin with a broad overarching idea; but you need to refine this with time. Probably the research process itself will enable you to narrow your focus and gain a better idea both of what you want to achieve and what it possible.
Having decided upon a topic, the next step is to write out an essay plan. This is very much like a road map, which has clearly defined starting and end points. Your research thus far will likely have illuminated some key items of relevance to your study. You want to plot these on your map as places of interest that must be visited. The exact route you take to get there is not that important. As long as you do not take any wild digressions, your thinking should flow easily from one point to the next.
An advantage of mapping out your essay is that it breaks the overall task down into manageable chunks. This allows the mind to focus on the smaller components as opposed to the larger whole, making the work much easier to digest.
Autonomous study can be something of a challenge initially. This is because there is a distinct lack of guidelines and direction. You need therefore to impose these upon yourself. This can be as simple as saying to yourself: by the end of the week, I will have chosen a broad subject matter to subject; by the end of next week I will have narrowed this down to three potential research questions; and so forth. Be your own tutor, so to speak. Having simple boundaries and exercising minimal discipline will make the task so much easier in the long run.
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