Advice for Students: How to Write Research Papers that Rock!

By | July 18, 2007
Research papers that rock!

No assignment save the comprehensive final exam seems to engender such fear in students as the research paper, especially the open topic research paper. Faced with the prospect of writing 5, 8, 12, or more pages on a topic of their choosing, a lot of students panic, unsure what to write about and how to research it. Far too often, students endanger their grades and even their academic futures by turning to online essay sites or other sources and copying what they assume is decent work (it rarely is, of course). I’ve even had students hand in my work as their own!

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One of the reasons students balk at research paper is that writing them is a skill that most college professors assume their students have, while few high school teachers teach it — leaving students to work out for themseves how exactly to proceed. Add to that the fact that students often take a range of courses they have little or no interest in to satisfy their general requirements, and it’s no wonder that students often feel hung out to dry when it comes to writing research papers.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Looked at properly, research papers can be a great way to deepen your understanding of your chosen field, and may be the first step towards developing a specialization that will serve you well as you move into your career or advanced education.

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There are a lot of things you can do to help make research papers work for you — and get a decent grade in the process:

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  • Write about something you’re passionate about. Figure out the link between the class you’re taking and your educational and career goals. If you hope to earn an MBA and find yourself stuck in a required Women’s Studies class, write about workplace harassment, or the impact of equal opportunity laws. If you are pre-med and have to take anthropology or sociology, write about cultural differences in notions of healing, or about access to health care for members of different classes. If you”re an accounting major… change your major. No, just kidding — if your major is accounting and you have to take literature, write about Franz Kafka (an insurance company clerk by day) or Wallace Stevens (also in insurance — there’s a lesson in here somewhere…).
  • Write a strong thesis. Your thesis is your statement of intent: what do you intend to demonstrate or prove in your paper. Here’s some types of theses that will grab your (and your professor’s) attention:
  1. Challenge a misconception: Use your paper to challenge the received wisdom, the stuff “everybody knows”. E.g. “Lots of people think [A] but really [not-A]”
  2. Find an unlikely connection: Use an idea from science to illuminate a concept in literature, or vice versa. For example: “Neils Bohr’s theory of the structure of the atom provides one way of looking at the relationship between Hamlet and the play’s secondary characters.” The idea here is to find a surprising new way of looking at or thinking about a concept.
  3. Rehabilitate a villain. Defend a historical personage or literary character widely assumed to have been “a bad guy”. The biologist Steven Jay Gould was a master of this, writing about people generally portrayed as the enemies of scientific progress — Lamarck, Bishop Usher, Pope Urban VIII — as exemplars of the cutting-edge science of their day. Make your reader take an unfairly (or even fairly) maligned character or person seriously. (Note: I’d avoid using this approach for Hitler; no matter how well you write, it’s unlikely anyone will appreeciate your efforts to make Hitler seem like a good chap.)
  4. Reframe a classic work in light of today’s technology, social structure, or culture. What kind of woman would Cinderella or Jane Austen’s Emma be in today’s corporate world? What could Newton or Julius Caesar have done with a MacBook Pro?
  5. Reframe today’s world in light of the technological, social, or cultural context of a classic. What would Julius Caesar think of Jack Welch or Bill Gates? What would Johannes Kepler make of string theory? What would Jane Austen think of today’s career woman?
  • Use yourself as a source. Use your own life experiences to illustrate the points you’re making. If you are writing about witchcraft and your grandmother was a Oaxacan healer, talk about that; if you are taking accounting 101 and your father ran a successful dry cleaning business, talk about that; if you are taking Poli Sci and you successfully ran for class president, talk about that. Use your own experiences to make your writing immediate and lively — and to keep yourself engaged in the act of writing. (Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?)
  • Consult the experts. The Internet makes it possible to directly reach people we’d have never thought possible even a decade ago. Google the leading voice in the field you’re writing about: a professor of chemistry at MIT, a leadership guru, a corporate anthropologist at Intel, and so on — chances are you’ll come across an email address, or at least a mailing address. Write to them, explain your project, and ask a few questions. The worst that can happen is they’ll ignore your request (so write a few people for backup). An easy trade-off, though, for being able to back up your argument with a nobel laureate’s support.
  • Choose your audience. Never, ever, write only for your professor. Write as if you were explaining your topic to a friend or family member, or to the President of the United States. Write as if your work was going to be a feature article in Time magazine, or as if you were submitting it to the leading academic journal in your field. Always choose an audience to write for, which will give you both a standard to evaluate your writing against (“would mom get this?”) and the incentive to write clearly and at the appropriate level. Writing as if your professor was the only one likely to read your paper (even if s/he is) is the shortest path to stuffy, boring writing that will engage neither your professor or, most likely, you.
  • Writing a research paper is work, there’s no getting around that. But it doesn’t have to be a chore — it can be, with a little thought, work you enjoy pouring yourself into. The trick is to give yourself something to write about that reflects your interests and truly fascinates you, something that you would want to know more about even if you hadn’t been assigned a paper.

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    The ideas above are a start — what tips do you have to share to help make writing less of a task to get through and more of an experience to enjoy?

    Learning how to live a stress free life may seem impossible, but the truth is that there are specific things you can do to begin eliminating sources of stress.

    No, it doesn’t look like a made-for-television movie. No, it doesn’t look like something only people with extra time and money can do. It looks like your life—but without any self-created stress triggers.

    Here are 11 ways to help you live a stress-free life:

    1. Stop Overanalyzing Situations That Haven’t Happened

    The first step to living a stress-free life is to stop overanalyzing imaginary scenarios. It’s easy to spend time in the world of worst-case scenarios. People tend to cultivate this world for one of two reasons.

    First, because if you know what the worst-case scenario is, then it won’t surprise you when it happens. Second, if you know what the worst-case scenario is, then you can do everything in your power to control the universe so the worst case never happens.

    If that’s really the world you want to cultivate, then become a professional risk assessor. If not, then ask yourself how you are benefiting from continuing to live that way.

    Does it make you feel better about yourself and your life? Does it make you want to leap out of bed in the morning, eager to embrace the worst-case scenario? Does it bring you joy or fulfillment?

    If your answer to these three questions is no, then stop living in the future and bring yourself back into the present.

    2. Don’t Take on Other People’s Problems

    The whole advantage of other people having problems is that they aren’t your problems. When you frequently take on other people’s problems, you get into the habit of enabling.

    Let’s get crystal clear about the definition of enabling: enabling is the art of continuing to take responsibility for other people, thereby disallowing their personal responsibility[1].

    It is of no service to other people to take on their problems because they can’t/won’t/don’t know how to fix the problem.

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    It is of service to empower others to take responsibility for themselves and their lives, to encourage, teach, and motivate others to address their own problems. So stop enabling, and start empowering.

    3. Get Present in the Moment

    Being present in the moment involves being in your body and feeling your feelings—two things that lots of folks actually don’t know how to do.

    Ask yourself these two questions: What does fear feel like in your body? What are you afraid of?

    If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you probably aren’t present in the moment. Being present involves vulnerability, humility, and openness[2].

    How to live a stress free life by being present

    The past and the future stop being so relevant and intriguing when you’re able to get in your body and feel your feelings. When you can do these two things, you actually want to be in the present moment.

    To get started, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and watch your stress levels drop. Then, try these tips: How to Live in the Moment and Stop Worrying.

    4. Focus on What You Have, Not What You Don’t

    The easiest way to stop focusing on what you don’t have is by not watching TV commercials. Marketing teaches us to focus on what we don’t have, and advertising campaigns spend millions of dollars convincing us that we must have what we don’t yet have.

    Can you think of a marketing campaign that teaches you to enjoy what you already have without buying something to enhance it? Odds are you can’t.

    In a world dictated by Super Bowl commercials and Facebook ads, it takes stalwart focus to recognize what you have more than what you don’t. If you want a stress-free life now, get stalwart, and stop letting other people dictate your focus.

    In order to do this, try cultivating a gratitude practice to help refocus your mind toward what is good in your life. You can get started with this guide.

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    5. Stop Surrounding Yourself With People Who Don’t Make You Happy

    Honestly, what kind of people do you really like to be around with? People who get you, who see you clearly, who accept your flaws and all; people you can be yourself with; people who have shared interests?

    How many of those people are in your life? What characteristics do all of the other people in your life have?

    If you find that the people in your life aren’t adding anything positive, it may be time to make some changes. If you find that other relationships you have are downright toxic, start working to cut out those relationships immediately.

    6. Find a Job That Makes You Feel Good

    You don’t have to stay at a job just because it pays the bills. Most people spend more time working than sleeping. The average person spends 40 to 80 hours a week—or 2,000 to 4,000 hours a year—working. That is a significant investment!

    If your best friend or child told you that they were going to spend 4,000 hours giving their emotional, mental, and physical energy to something (or someone) that wasn’t going to value them, give anything back to them, or pay them what they were worth, what advice would you offer? Give that same advice to yourself. You won’t be stress-free unless you don’t learn this[3].

    Here’re 11 Signs That You Should Leave Your Job.

    7. Only Take on What You Can Handle

    Busyness is an addiction. Slowing down can actually be terrifying because it causes you to notice that you have feelings that you now have time to feel.

    I get it.

    By the time I slowed down, I had decades of busyness under my belt. I went into a tailspin depression because I didn’t understand how to be in the right relationship with my own emotions.

    When I finally figured out that feelings are just feelings and allowing them to express themselves is healthy and natural, I stopped experiencing withdrawal from my addiction to busyness and started figuring out the pace of life that felt best for me.

    Remarkably, I discovered that I don’t actually like being busy. What will you discover about yourself?

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    8. Let Go of Grudges and Anger

    For me, it took 20 years of adulthood to figure out that holding on to grudges and anger only hurt me. Lucky for you, though, you can benefit vicariously from my experience just by reading one short paragraph!

    No one is holding your feet to the fire, demanding that you hold on to grudges and anger. The energy of anger slowly eats away at your body, mind, and spirit, until one day you wake up more resentful than optimistic.

    One day, people no longer want to be around you because the stink of negativity is oozing out of your pores. One day, you even get tired of hearing yourself get angry. And the person or people you are angry at or holding grudges against probably haven’t been affected at all.

    Who gets hurt the most in that process of repeating negative thoughts? You do.

    Some good advice for you here: How to Let Go of Resentment and Anger

    9. Stop Reliving Your Past

    To live a stress-free life, you have to stop reliving your past. I know it seems like fun to compare everything in your present to your past, and to experience the present through past-colored glasses, but it actually isn’t.

    When you wear past-colored glasses, you can’t truly experience the present for what it is. Your boyfriend or girlfriend gets compared to a list of expectations and failed relationships rather than recognized for the unique blessing they are in your life.

    Your boss gets compared to all the bosses who came before her/him. Your friends’ ability to parent gets compared to your parents’ ability to parent.

    People, including you, deserve to stand on their own past-free merit.

    10. Don’t Complain About Things You Can’t Change

    There are always going to be people elected into office whom you don’t like, taxes that you don’t want to pay, idiot drivers who refuse to move out of the left-hand lane, and a person ahead of you in the check-out line who won’t stop chatting with the clerk.

    The great benefit of being human is that we get to experience all of what life offers us. To live stress-free is to learn to deal with this fact.

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    Dwelling on your frustration with something that can’t be changed doesn’t do anything other than drag you down. You are the only person who will ultimately decide how to respond to what is.

    11. Stop Living Through Other People’s Lives

    Someone else’s life is not your life. Your life is your life.

    What that means is you get to live your life in the way you want. You get to make ridiculous mistakes, take leaps of faith, and stuff things inside your handbag of fear just as much as the next person.

    Going through stuff is the whole great messy adventure of being human! Being alive and living life is terrifying and glorious and everything in between.

    Stop living through social media, trying to soak in all of the experiences everyone else is having. Focus, instead, on what it feels like to be you in this moment. You may find you like it.

    Final Thoughts

    An astounding thing happens when you reduce stress and anxiety, get into a relationship with your body, mind, and spirit, and just be yourself without judgment.

    Your life literally slows down. You stop wishing for the weekend. You begin to live in each moment, and you start feeling like a human being. You just ride the wave that is life, with this feeling of contentment and joy.

    You move fluidly, steadily, calmly, and gratefully. A veil is lifted, and a whole new perspective is born through improved mental health. And this is how you live a stress-free life.

    More Tips on How to Live a Stress-Free Life

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