Writing a research paper can trigger fear and anxiety, but can also be an interesting and rewarding undertaking. Breaking the task into manageable steps will make the process feel less overwhelming. With practice, your academic skills and confidence in yourself as a scholar will grow. Mastering research and technical writing is especially important if you have graduate school in mind.
Don’t procrastinate. Start working on your research paper soon after you receive the assignment. It will take less time in the long run to write your paper if you plan your work and get an early start. Review the course syllabus or consult your professor to determine the purpose, length and due date of the assignment. Note which style guide is preferred for formatting papers in the specific discipline. For example, humanities uses the Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines, whereas social studies follows the American Psychological Association (APA) manual. A typical research paper is at least 10 pages in length. Think about how long you typically spend writing shorter papers to gauge how many hours it may take you to write a research paper once you’ve found and analyzed sources. The better you know your topic, the faster you can write.
Thoughtfully Choose a Topic
Identifying a topic that will sustain your interest throughout the arduous research process is essential. Ask yourself what intrigues you about the subject you’re studying and think about questions you would like to answer. A doable topic is neither too narrow nor too broad. For example, if you’re writing a paper for an environmental science class, it would be better to specifically research causative factors of the declining polar bear population than wade through thousands of articles on the broader topic of global warming. In contrast, you may have trouble finding enough sources if you narrowly limit your study to the effects of pollutants on newborn polar bears in the Kivalliq region, for instance. Looming deadlines require you to make choices about what you can realistically discover and report in a given timeframe.
Identify and Digest Credible Sources
Professors are understandably picky about the sources students use when writing papers. Fortunately, college students have a world of scholarly information accessible on their computers 24/7. Look for scientific publications and peer-reviewed journals vetted by experts before publication. Check out the online databases available through your school, such as EBSCO Host, WorldCat and LexisNexis, to name just a few. Educational and governmental websites are also acceptable sources of information. Visit the library to check out books and delve into special collections not accessible online. Take notes on what you’re learning as you review each source.
Formulate a Research Proposal
Some professors require students to submit a draft research proposal before getting too far along in the assignment. The purpose is to help students develop a cogent plan of study that meets the professor’s expectations and standards. Such a proposal includes a title, a short overview of the subject, research questions to be explored, intended methods of study, available resources and the significance of the research. That information also goes into the abstract of the research paper, as required by APA.
Review Formatting Guides
Research papers should be organized according to a study guide, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychology Association. The general APA format for an undergraduate research paper consists of a title page with a running header at the top, page numbers, abstract, main body and a reference page. Papers should be double-spaced with 1-inch margins in an easily readable serif font like Times New Roman. More detailed formatting is required for formal research papers that include a literature review, a data analysis section and recommendations for future study. In parenthesis, include the author’s name followed by a comma and the article’s publication date when acknowledging sources. Put quotation marks around direct quotes and indent five spaces for quotes over 40 words long. Use in-text citations when paraphrasing. Research papers written in APA style must include an abstract, which is a summary of the paper and its findings. Place the abstract page immediately after the title page. According to APA, the abstract should be one long paragraph in length and between 150 to 250 words.
Write the Main Body of the Paper
A research paper begins with an opening paragraph that introduces the main idea or argument of the paper, known as the thesis statement. For example, if your thesis is “Polar bears will be extinct in 10 years because of man-made climate change,” you are taking a stand supported by preliminary research on polar bears and global warming. Every paragraph that follows must directly relate to that assertion. As your knowledge deepens and you uncover new evidence, go back and revise your thesis statement, if appropriate. Include hard data, such as statistics, charts and graphs. Acknowledge contradictory findings and offer a rebuttal. The goal is to evaluate and synthesize literature without simply regurgitating it. Wrap up your paper with a summary of key arguments and justification. Relate your conclusion back to the thesis statement and remind the reader why your research matters.
Attach a Reference Page
Attach a separate page listing references. Purdue University’s Online Writing Laboratory provides helpful tips on how to correctly cite sources placed in the body of your paper and at the end. A professor grading your paper may take points off for formatting errors. Always cite ideas borrowed from sources or you could be guilty of plagiarism, which can lead to suspension or permanent expulsion from school.
Submit Your Masterpiece
After finishing your paper, proofread it carefully and correct errors. Before uploading your research paper into a course management system, save it in Outlook as a PDF instead of a Word document to maintain the formatting. You can also scan and email it as a PDF. Lastly, celebrate your accomplishment!
Dr. Mary Dowd is a dean of students whose job includes student conduct, leading the behavioral consultation team, crisis response, retention and the working with the veterans resource center. She enjoys helping parents and students solve problems through advising, teaching and writing online articles that appear on many sites. Dr. Dowd also contributes to scholarly books and journal articles.