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How to Conduct Research and Write Your Paper

Tips on how to research and write your papers!
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Develop Your Topic

What are you interested in? Start by brainstorming topics of interest.  Once you’ve landed on a few, do some critical background research.  What questions does your reading raise?

Once you’ve done a little digging, write down everything you know about your potential topic.  Then, write down the questions you thought of while reading.  Can you answer these questions easily, using only the background research you’ve done?

If so, then do some more digging, and write probing questions, beginning with “Why…? What if…?  How…?”  The goal is to have detailed answers, not a simple yes or no.

Sample Topic and Probing Questions

Undergraduate class: POL 370--Political Violence

Topic of interest: terrorism

Background information: “Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion. In the international community, however, terrorism has no universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for a religious, political or ideological goal, and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians).”

My questions upon reading the background information:

  • What motivates someone to engage in terrorist activity? 
  • How can we find out what motivates people to engage in terrorist activity?

Develop Your Research Question

It’s time to move beyond background research into the literature.  Start by first identifying the key scholars within your topic area, and read what they have to say.  What questions do they have?  How do they go about answering them?

Go back to your original questions and add to them or refine them based on the latest research you’ve done.  Write down some persuasive claims that you’d like to make about your topic.  Keep in mind that a good research question will have more than one possible answer.  Be careful not to ask the exact same questions or statements as the scholars you’ve read; you want to take an original stance on the topic.

Bad Sample Question: What motivates terrorists to engage in terrorist activity? (too broad)

Good Sample Question: Why did the Northern Irish who joined the IRA during the Troubles choose to employ terrorist tactics in their fight for independence? (narrow enough, places the topic in context)