Getting Started on Your Research

Below you will find important information, suggestions, and resources that will help you successfully start and complete your research project. Before you begin brainstorming or focusing on your topic, it’s important to ensure you understand your assignment. Read our guide on Understanding Your Assignment for more information.


How do I begin? (The Research Question)

A research assignment is usually built upon a research question that motivates you. A research question is a question that you have thought about while completing your readings, listening to your instructor lecture, or even in your labs and tutorials. Typically, your instructor’s assignments will suggest some topics for you, which should hopefully spark some new ideas and might feed into your research question. However, if the instructor does not provide one, think about the topics in the course that have interested you the most so far, and see how they might help you answer your question.
Most importantly, choose a topic and/or develop a research question that motivates you because nothing is worse than writing an assignment on a topic that does not interest you.

I’m unsure what interests me…

You might feel as though you’ve hit a writer’s block before the assignment has even started because you do not know what interests you. However, rest assured that you have many options.
Look over your lecture notes and reading notes. Was anything that you wanted the instructor to cover not discussed in class? If so, this could be a great a great opportunity for you to complete your own research on that topic and address your own question. Although a great idea might stem from a lecture, avoid writing about a topic already widely covered by your instructor. Your instructor is expecting you to share your exciting new ideas.

Other sources of inspiration

If you are asked to think of a new topic not covered in class, here are some possible sources of inspiration:
Think about current events. Look at editorials in newspapers and news sites, or look at what is trending on Twitter, Buzzed or other social media.
Learn more about your discipline. Check out subject-based encyclopaedic information such as the Oxford Reference (include link) collection.
Try typing key words from your course into Summon (include link) to see the possible articles that have been written on your topic for inspiration. Be careful not to copy these ideas to avoid plagiarism, but they could spark some new ideas like your instructor’s lectures.

After you’ve found your source of inspiration

Take a sheet of paper, or open a Word doc on your computer, or even a white/chalk board if you have access to one, and start typing out all of the ideas that come to your mind. Do not stop writing for five minutes. Once you’ve completed this exercise, you will notice how many ideas you have, and find a potential answer to your research question, and way to structure your assignment.

Focusing on a Topic

Once you’ve completed your brainstorm, you should be ready to move on to the next step: focussing on a research topic. That is to say, now that you’ve listed all the ideas that come to your mind, you need to narrow down your list and choose a few key words to search.

Testing your idea

One way of testing your idea is by typing into Summon ( your key words, which should connect to some main concepts (e.g. if you are working on violence in high schools, you might look into the topic of bullying amongst teenage boys). Doing so will allow you to see what other type of research has been published on the topic, which should not allow be useful for you to respond to in your assignments, but also provide you new leads.

Potential problems

It is possible that typing in the key words that you’ve listed may yield too little or too many results. Here is how to best resolve these issues:

Too few results

  • You might have to many variables in your search (i.e. bullying AND high school AND boys AND masculinity), which leads to one result. Try eliminating one of them, such as “masculinity,” which provides 35 results.
  • You can also try using alternative words from your brainstorm that could help populate more results.

Too many results

  • You might type into Summon the word “bullying,” which will give you 559,957 results. If that is the case, you will have to add more variables from your list to create a narrower list of results.

Choosing Information Sources

Depending on your assignment, you will need certain types of information. It is up to you to decide whether you need a more general resource to better understand the topic (i.e. a dictionary, encyclopedia), or a more specific resource describing the field that you are researching (i.e. a journal article, a book), or all of the most recent scholarship published on your topic (i.e. a works cited list). Remember that research is not simply completed at the beginning of an assignment but is an ongoing process throughout your assignment.

How to:
Below is a helpful chart describing a list of different informational needs, what types of resources you might need as well as where to find them. Depending on the info you need (left of the chart), you have a few options of information (centre of the chart) that can help you. To find them, we have included a few useful instructions (right of the chart) to make the process a little easier.
Note: This is a general overview. Different disciplines may have slightly different requirements and approaches to the research process.

If you need to: Consider using: Step-by-Step Instructions
  • identify smaller parts of a large topic
  • find an overview of your topic
  • fill gaps in your knowledge
  • define a term you’ve encountered in your reading
  • learn about theoretical approaches to your topic
  • find a bibliography/works cited list
Encyclopedias, handbooks, specialized dictionaries, etc. Enter search terms in Summon, the search box on our homepage.When results display, look at the Content Type menu to find a link for Reference. (If the Reference link isn’t showing, click on More to scan through the entire list of content types.)
  • find more in-depth information than an encyclopedia article, including different approaches, methodologies and theories
  • find a more general view of a topic than an article provides
  • find a bibliography/works cited list
Books, book chapters Type your keywords into Summon.When results display, limit by Content Type to books/eBooks.
  • find out about research in a very narrow area.
  • find a bibliography/works cited list
Articles from peer-reviewed journals You have two choices: 1. For lots of results and from many perspectives, type your keywords into Summon and then click the Scholarly & Peer-Review and/or Peer-Review links (under Refine Your Search) 2. For fewer results, from specific perspectives, use a specialized search engine (aka, article database) for your research. If you don’t know which database to use:

  • Find the Research Guide for your topic – there’s one for every subject taught at UBC.
  • Click the Research Guide and click on the Articles tab to see a list of specialized article databases.
  • Choose a database, connect, and type in your keywords.

Databases: Search Strategies provides general instructions that apply in all article databases.

Choose from the complete list of search guides at Get Research Help

Additional Help & Resources

At UBC Okanagan

Evaluating your sources

  • The quality of your assignment will depend in many ways upon the quality of the resources you employ. See this guide (include link) for more information on how to decide if the resource you’ve found is the best for your assignment.

Recommended Books and Resources

The above content was adapted from UBC Library’s Getting Started on Your Research