A Student's Brief Overview of the Research Paper
College research paper guidelines. In preparing a research paper, students need to showcase research on topic, adding analysis and assertions to thesis.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
The majority of papers you will be assigned in college are research papers. The research you collect for a research paper illuminates what scholars have to say concerning the argument or research question you are setting forth, and it serves as a springboard for your conclusion.
In preparing a research paper, strike a balance between showcasing thorough research and presenting research that covers too much ground or goes too far afield of your topic. It's easy to get carried away with research as you discover more and more interesting aspects of your topic. You will certainly want to include all the research you can find that closely relates to your topic. You may, however, wish to limit your coverage to the most recent works. On the other hand, be sure to include the landmark works in the field, no matter how old they are.
In some classes, professors will ask that you go beyond making a simple argument and discussing it based on what other scholars have contributed to the conversation on the subject. In social science, business, and natural science classes, for example, your instructor may ask that you conduct original research, such as a study or experiment. In those cases, you would likely structure your paper like this:
- Introduction/thesis statement/hypothesis
- Literature review (the scholarly conversation about your topic)
- Explanation/methodology of study/experiment/original research
- Results of study/experiment/original research
- Discussion/suggestions for further research/limitations of original research
- Conclusion, which refers back to the thesis statement
Note: If your professor does not require original research, the structure of your paper would focus on items 1, 2, and 6.
With a research paper that focuses only the research others have done (rather than original research you've produced), the key is that whatever argument or thesis statement you've set forth, you should demonstrate that you have thoroughly researched and presented what all relevant sources have to say about the subject and sets the stage for you to add to the body of research with your own analysis and assertions.
Among professors' pet peeves about research papers is little evidence of research. Inserting quotations, citing authors that bolster your thesis, and presenting a lengthy-but-pertinent bibliography will all help show your professor that you've researched your topic well, assuming that you have, in fact, gathered sufficient research material. But evidence of copious research will succeed only if you use the research you've uncovered in a way in a way that logically supports your thesis. Integrating that research into the paper is trickier. A former colleague who is a history professor offers this stringent guideline: "Every paragraph except the introduction and conclusion ought to have a reference to the primary or secondary material used for your paper. If there is not a reference to a source in the paragraph, you probably have not provided the necessary evidence to demonstrate your point." While some professors might consider such a dictum extreme, you certainly can't go wrong if you follow the "a-source-in-every-paragraph" guideline.
Also high on the list of professor peeves about student writing is their failure to support the stated thesis. College research papers must explore a question, problem, or issue. You must state a thesis at the outset, also known as a hypothesis, and the rest of your paper must build a case that supports your thesis, argument or main point. You are not merely summarizing information, as you might do with a high-school paper, but taking a position with the best evidence you can find in the literature. Here's how the same history professor colleague expresses this concept in the writing guidelines he distributes to his students: "All papers must have a thesis. Providing information is not enough. There must be a point to your work. The thesis of your paper should be a declarative sentence that makes an argument of some kind and shows why a topic or idea is significant."
Final Thoughts on College Research Paper Success
Professors reward with good grades student essay and research-paper writers who understand their
paper topic, support their thesis with solid research, organize their papers well, write clearly, and avoid
the major flaws that irritate teachers.
Get more information about research papers in these articles:
- A Five-Component Plan for Writing a Research Paper
- Five Fundamental Problems to Avoid in Your Research Papers
- How to Develop a Topic for Your Paper
- How to Write an Abstract
- How's Your Word Usage? Common Word Usage Errors That Students Should Avoid
- Identifying, Understanding, and Evaluating Research Sources
- Punctuation and Grammar Do's and Dont's: Avoiding Pesky Mechanical Errors that Hurt Your Writing Grades
- A Student's Brief Overview of Using Keywords to Search for Research Sources
- Superb Sentences: Building Blocks to A+ Writing Assignments
- Tips for Polishing Your Writing: A Baker's Dozen
- The Top 15 Writing Flaws That Can Lead to Lower Grades
- Using Research Sources Effectively
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.