5 tips for planning your research

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about returning to higher education as a mature student. At the end of the article, I promised further posts on research and planning but then promptly forgot all about it. As I’m currently attempting to start another research project, I thought now was a good time to share my planning tips. Feel free to share any additional advice in the comments.

1) Find a topic you love so much you could marry it
This was advice given to me before I started my Master’s course and is very useful tip if you are approaching a new structured research project that is longer than any you have done before (e.g. a Master’s project or a PhD). Think about what it would feel like to be doing this research next year, or the year after. If it took longer to finish than you anticipated, do you think you’d get bored of the subject? Also, remember that life is too short for using research methods you genuinely hate, just because you feel you ought to. Propose a project that uses the ones you love and you’ll enjoy your research far more.

2) Keep a note of anything that might be useful
And I mean anything. You don’t have to know why it is useful just yet, as that’s for FutureYou to find out. For now, simply work out the best way of collecting all your thoughts and notes, then start jotting. Everyone’s brain works in a different way, so methods of organising notes that others use might not be ideal for you. Have a look at what different folk recommend and try a few things out. I use three main methods: Evernote for collating brief notes, links and references that may be helpful; a notebook for longform thoughts and notes taken during my archive visits; plus Google Docs for when I start to piece it all together.

3) You will NEVER EVER read all the books
Instead of beating yourself up over the amount you feel you haven’t read, approach what you do read methodically. Scour the references in academic texts you find useful to discover others that may be relevant. Search using every single related keyword you can think of. Write out good quotes as you go along (with the proper citation, including page number), so that you are able to find them later. I did this during research for my Master’s project and then, when I got the the writing up stage and was panicking that I hadn’t done enough reading, I already had loads of stuff saved in a document which made a great starting point. Which brings me to…

4) DO NOT put off starting writing
Seriously, don’t. You won’t see the connections between various aspects of your research until you start writing. You won’t see the gaps until you start writing. The blank page is scary, but it’s never too early to write something that will make it less blank and daunting. During my Master’s project, I looked at essays I enjoyed and worked out why. I read past dissertations to get an idea of scope, tone and formatting. Once you’ve got some lovely big chunks of writing sat there staring back at you, don’t be precious about them. Learn to edit (save new versions as you make changes, just in case you want to go back), and make sure you find a few trusted proofreaders. Also… pretend your deadline is at least 3 days before the real one.

5) You may not feel like an expert, but you will be!
When you start learning something, it always reminds you of how much you don’t know. This means it can be all too easy to worry that you’re not an expert on your topic. You might not be at the start of your research, and you may only be on your way to expert status by the time you finish your dissertation, article or thesis, but you will most certainly know a lot more about your topic than the vast majority of people. If they consider you to be an expert, embrace it.

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