College Research Papers For Dummies
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Research papers are like a six-hour energy drink for your grade. They’re usually weighted a higher point value than other assignments because they require more work. And writing a few successful research papers each semester helps to boost your grade point average — and your academic confidence.

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In addition to energizing your grade, here’s a look at the benefits of research papers and why they matter. Doing a research paper:
  • Broadens your knowledge base: New knowledge produces new questions to answer and new answers to questions. Research papers broaden and develop new interests.
  • Develops your scholarship: Research papers are the primary academic activity of scholars-in-training like you. More than any other academic assignment, research papers show your depth of understanding a topic.
  • Focuses your expertise: If your research writing reveals patterns of interests, such as an analysis of workplace issues, you may be developing an area of focus for career exploration. Trace your research topics from middle school through college and analyze what they reveal about your interests.
  • Develops problem-solving skills: Solving problems develops your problem-solving skills. Researching and writing are endless marathons of solving problems.
  • Expands career opportunities: Research papers and grad school are a given. A research background also qualifies you for many business careers, including entrepreneurialism. Each paper you write represents an opportunity to explore a new career.
  • Shows off your skills: Research papers demonstrate a variety of academic skills such as synthesizing, analyzing, organizing, summarizing, and paraphrasing. They also show skills such as creating research questions, developing an argument, and drawing conclusions.
Before the age of mass computers, research was like locating a lucky flake in a family-size box of cereal. The research process included locating the library’s one copy of the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, searching your topic, recording periodical biographical information, submitting your source requests, and returning in a week to see if your requests could be fulfilled. Occasionally, an overzealous peer would irresponsibly rip out the periodical page you needed for research.

Gathering scholarly sources today lacks yesterday’s drama, but not yesterday’s importance. Sources may not be as significant to you as your phone and Wi-Fi, but without research skills to locate them, your academic life will crash like an overheated device.Put on your academic game face, alert your friends you’re taking a short sabbatical from social media, and commit yourself to the type of research that decreases the distance toward your college graduation goal.

For more on how to start your college research paper, including formulating the all-important research question, creating an outline for a research paper, and gathering sources, check out my book College Research Papers For Dummies.

What makes good research paper topics?

Let this idea live rent free in your head: As a college professor who has graded more than 10,000 research papers, I assure you the most important grade-influencing decision you make — before you write word one in draft one — is identifying the topic. Innovative topics encourage your professor to reward your initiative with a grade of B or better, and it’s usually better.

Innovative or outlier topics show your audience, and your professor, that your thinking surpasses the status quo and recognizes the importance of engaging writing and interesting content. Here are some examples of research paper topics that professors want to see more of and are willing to reward you for:
  • Culinary trends in Shakespeare’s plays: What they say about nutrition at the time
  • Nineteenth century literary characters who would blow up Twitter — and today’s First Amendment implications
  • Is a “good” dictatorship better than a bad democracy?
These topics combine unexpected elements: Shakespeare themes and nutrition, literary characters and the First Amendment — and arguing against the grain (a good dictatorship).

Your initial topic, research questions, and thesis are called working because they usually require revising during background research and early writing of the assignment.

Professor-pleasing topic elements

In addition to novel and uncommon approaches, elements of professor-pleasing topics include the following:
  • Addresses assignment question: Professors design research assignments to allow you broad interpretations of the topic, but not limitless approaches. Professors expect your topic to fulfill the major purpose of the assignment, usually a form of argument.
  • Connects to course content: Connect your topic to course content by surveying your syllabus, reviewing tests, perusing notes and readings, and recalling class discussions. Identify major themes of the course and determine how one of them connects with the assignment.
  • Contains a debatable issue: Be certain that your topic has an element of disagreement. If you’re arguing that government should partially repay student loans, be sure to address reasons for disagreement.
  • Appeals to scholarly audience, including your professor: Connect your topic to the scholarly audience by analyzing it through an academic discipline, such as economics, health, psychology, sociology, and works of literature. Also consider integrating interests of your professor who represents that audience.
  • Identifies with your academic interest: Within the context of the assignment, choose a topic that will sustain your interest for three or four weeks. Consider a topic in your major field of study, a topic you want to explore, or a topic you think about and talk about.
  • Includes available research: An early red flag to abort your topic is lack of easily available research. If you can’t locate 15 to 20 sources on your first search, and if the reference librarian can’t direct you to topic sources, reboot your topic.

How to find research paper topics

Topic ideas surround your everyday academic life. Here are some resources for developing your research topic:

Background reading: Read extensively and deeply on the topic. Read for who, what, when, where, how, and why. Read for ideas explained, implied, understated, and omitted.

Your professor and other faculty: Talk with your professor about your planned approach to the topic and ask about other professors who may be a source for your research. You could also ask your professor for research paper examples that they consider high quality.

Content from other courses: Professors value interdisciplinary thinking. Consider topics from another course that apply to the assignment.

Library resources: A walk through the library or a scroll through the library website may generate topic ideas. Note displays and special interest exhibits and consider their connection to your topic.

Campus and community issues: Consider campus and community issues that may connect to the assignment such as campus resources that can address community problems.

Your phone’s AI: Ask your phone’s artificial intelligence for a suggested topic. The answer may surprise you.

Social media: Is a topic trending on social media that’s academically applicable to the assignment? What topics are going viral?

Identify a working topic within hours after analyzing your assignment and completing background reading. Avoid topic paralysis that bankrupts your time-management budget. Topic indecision is the enemy of a successful assignment.

Topic pitfalls to avoid

Your goal as a student is to fulfill your professor’s expectations for the assignment, which includes researching scholarly evidence to argue a thesis. Avoid topics that present unnecessary obstacles for achieving those objectives, such as the following:
  • Too intricate: Steer clear of complex topics that exceed assignment length and increase difficulty of the assignment, such as the following:
    • Causes of declining GPAs among first-generation college students who commute and work full time, reducing available study time
    • All about AI: Uses and abuses, position in the workplace, and potential to replace college writing
  • Non-arguable: College students thrive on defending a belief. But when a belief lacks defense, they’re speechless — or wordless. Here are examples of topics that lack a logical argument:
    • Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide and needs a cure.
    • Colleges that have large endowments offer more resources to students than colleges with smaller endowments.
  • Values: College students feel strongly about their personal values (honesty, authenticity, compassion, service, and so forth). But research papers and most other college assignments (except in a course that studies values and ethics) aren’t the platform to defend them because they’re too difficult to argue with scholarly sources. Defend your values with how you live your life and argue them in dorm-room discussions — with the door closed tightly. Here are a couple of examples of a values topic difficult to write a research paper about:
  • Too technical: Avoid topics that exceed the technical knowledge of your audience and require too much terminology to explain. For example:
    • Unfair advantages of high-tech swimwear in collegiate competitive swimming
    • The energy efficiency of an HVAC system is directly related to its air exchange capabilities
  • Personal obsessions: Avoid topics focused on personal obsessions you’re passionate about, such as politics, religion, and personal health. The emotional “you” will overpower the logical “you,” and your argument usually includes personal opinion rather than scholarly sources and a thesis based on logic.
As soon as you begin accumulating information for your research project, back up files and back up your backup. Universities usually provide adequate student storage. Self-emailing represents another form of back up, in addition to an external hard drive backup. Avoid embarrassing yourself with the excuses almost all professors will decry: “I lost my files” or “My computer crashed.”

How to create a thesis statement

Your most important sentence as an academic writer is the thesis statement, which states the position your paper will take and the direction it will develop. It’s like system settings on your devices, controlling every function of your research. If one part of your thesis malfunctions, your research assignment is toast.

Think of the thesis like sentence ground zero. The development of every idea in the assignment flows through the thesis statement. In research writing, thesis statements are called claim statements because they claim or assert the argument of the paper.

Thesis statements require more thought than any other sentence you write. And when the thesis fails, the assignment fails. These sections explain the what and how of writing thesis statements and illustrate five steps for drafting a research paper thesis.

Focus your thesis on a problem within the topic

After analyzing the assignment and background reading, identify a problem related to the topic. Here’s an example on the topic of earning college degrees: Almost 60 percent of first-year college students neglect to graduate within six years.

The topic’s problems include millions of students who fail to achieve their college dream and the financial opportunities that accompany it and drop out of college with approximately $15,000 in student-loan debt.The thesis offers a research-supported solution to the problem. When thesis statements neglect to focus on a problem, they lack reader drama and audience interest.

How to write a thesis

The thesis identifies the purpose of the research paper and references the argument the paper will defend. Here’s an example of a thesis: The college admission process should include students’ demonstrating an understanding of at least three classic books.

The sample thesis asserts that students should demonstrate critical reading skills before admission to college. The thesis argues that the almost 60 percent college attrition rate six years after enrollment is attributed to poor reading skills. It will be supported by research showing that reading is a fundamental skill for success in college.As a general rule, a thesis statement is completion of the sentence, such as: "The purpose of this research paper is to argue that …" Here’s a look at theses that complete that sentence:
  • The cost of producing electric vehicles often exceeds energy saved over lifetime operation of the vehicle.
  • Music improves the benefits of exercising.
  • Colleges bear some responsibility for the student loan crisis.
Here’s a look at some successful thesis statements:
  • Responsibility for the student loan crisis should be shared by borrowers and colleges, especially the college admission process.
  • Female characters in Shakespeare are representative of today’s “Me Too” movement.
  • NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) has had a positive influence on college academics.
The most common error writing thesis statements is writing sentences too narrow or too broad. Here are examples of those errors and their revisions:
  • Too narrow: College students’ academic performance is limited by eating unhealthy snacks.
    • Revised: College students perform better academically when they exercise and develop good nutrition habits.
  • Too broad: Everyone should go to college.
    • Revised: Everyone qualified and motivated should attend college, but many other routes leading to career success and financial stability are available, such as the trades and entrepreneurialism.

Drafting a research paper thesis in five easy steps

Thesis statements preview the argument the research paper supports. Here are five easy-to-follow steps for writing a thesis statement for research papers:
  1. Determine your topic. After analyzing the assignment and reading background information, list the topic that interests you, which includes an argument and support by available research.
  2. Identify a problem. Identify a major problem related to the topic that the research paper will address.
  3. Interrogate your topic. Identify a variety of meanings of the problem by asking questions such as:
    1. Whom or what is affected by the problem?
    2. Who benefits and who doesn’t?
    3. So what? and What if?
    4. What do the answers suggest about content needed to address the topic?
  4. Write a research question. The question you write is answered by the thesis. Here’s an example of a research question: How does NIL affect college athletes?
  5. Convert the question into a position statement. A thesis statement takes an arguable position that offers a solution to the problem, such as: NIL provides college athletes with the same social media financial opportunities as non-athlete students.

Quick Read Summary

  • Research papers are essential in academia, often carrying significant weight in your overall grade. They require more effort than other assignments but offer various benefits, including broadening your knowledge base, developing scholarship, focusing your expertise, and enhancing problem-solving skills. Additionally, they can open up career opportunities and showcase your academic skills.
  • Choosing a good research paper topic is crucial. Innovative and unique topics impress your professors and set you up for a higher grade. Topics that challenge the status quo and offer fresh perspectives are highly regarded. For instance, consider topics like "Culinary trends in Shakespeare's plays: What they say about nutrition at the time" or "Is a 'good' dictatorship better than a bad democracy?" These unexpected combinations and unconventional approaches can make your paper stand out.
  • When selecting a topic, ensure it aligns with the assignment's purpose, connects to course content, contains a debatable issue, appeals to a scholarly audience (including your professor), relates to your academic interest, and has ample available research sources.
  • To find research paper topics, explore resources such as background reading, consult your professors and other faculty, consider content from other courses, explore library resources, and even use AI and social media trends for inspiration. Don't get stuck in topic indecision; it can hinder your progress.
  • Avoid topic pitfalls like overly intricate subjects, non-arguable topics, issues based on personal values, extremely technical subjects, and personal obsessions. These topics can complicate your research and hinder your ability to argue your thesis effectively.
  • Crafting a strong thesis statement is crucial for your research paper. It serves as the backbone of your paper, guiding its development. Start by identifying a problem related to your topic and then write a research question. Convert this question into a clear and arguable position statement. Your thesis should be focused on a problem, supported by research, and offer a solution.
In summary, research papers are instrumental in academic success, but choosing the right topic and crafting a compelling thesis statement are key factors in ensuring a successful paper.

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Geraldine Woods is the author of more than 10 Dummies titles, including English Grammar For Dummies. She is a hugely experienced educator with a gift for helping students realize their potential and come to grips with even the hardest subjects. Her friendly style and good humor make learning easy.

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