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The Research Process

In this research guide, learn the steps and strategies for an effective research process. Contact a librarian for assistance!

Icon of a word bubble with a question mark insideYou've just been assigned a research paper that asks you develop a thesis statement on a topic of interest to you which is currently being discussed/debated in society and write 5-6 pages. Where do you start?  

Understanding Your Assignment

How do you get to the core of what you're being asked to do in your paper? Thoroughly reading your assignment is an important part of getting started so you understand what your end goal should be. 

  • What is the purpose of the project?
  • To what extent should I bring my own ideas to the project? Do I need to present an original theory, argue a point of view, or am I primarily synthesizing and organizing information in order to report on it?
  • How much evidence (or information) will I need to gather? Is there are required number of sources to use?
  • What kinds of evidence (or sources) am I expected to use? 
  • What should the finished project look like?
  • When is the project due? To make sure I have enough time to research and write, when should I start my first step?

(Credit to the Gustavus Adolphus College Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library Do Research Guide for their insightful questions.)

Choosing a Topic

Choosing a Topic

Whether your topic is about current events or needs to be within a certain subject area, exploring your interests and what’s being written can help you craft an idea:  

  • Start by making a list of possible issues to research that you can explore before deciding.
  • Use class notes or readings, your personal interests, podcasts, conversations with friends or your professor as ideas.
  • Read the news or other publications you enjoy to look for current ideas and conversations. 

In the video below, Jennie goes through the process of picking a topic and learns how to select one that's just right. 

Locating Background Information

Locating Background Information

Icon of a house and a tree on a green hillLike the foundation of a house, background information is an important support for starting your research by establishing facts and existing perspectives on your topic. Before you start building a paper, you should have an understanding of your topic, such as basic facts like dates and people, important data, and definitions of terms.  


Collecting background information can help you:  

  • Helps define your topic and makes sure there is enough information to explore
  • Gives you the language and facts to understand later research such as key concepts, important terminology, notable people, and big events 
  • Helps you understand current conversations and contextualize topic  
  • Formulate more specific research questions to help narrow your topic 
  • Choose keywords to use for deeper searching and highlight potential resources to use in the research process 

General Reference Databases (library subscription resources)

Open Web (Free) Resources

Using Wikipedia in Research

Thanks to IUPUI University Library for allowing reuse of this graphic under a Creative Commons license.

Click the second tab above for an accessible text version of this graphic. 

Using Wikipedia for Research


Find Background Information - Entries and embedded links can be used to generate ideas and learn the terminology associated with your topic.

Generate Search Terms - Take a look at the embedded links, bolded words, or table of contents. They can help generate search terms to use for searching in library databases.

Look at the Bibliography - The bottom of the page should list the sources used to compile the entry. They can point you to other resources (sometimes scholarly) on the topic.


Cite to Wikipedia - In academic research, you usually never cite to an encyclopedia or other sources of background information.

Believe Everything - Because the content is user-created, anonymous, and does not have a mandatory review process, there is no guarantee that the information is accurate and credible.

Icon of a light bulb with an upside down exclamation point inside

Before you move on...

Remember, your research starts as you are picking your topic! This is because you need to learn about the key facts, perspectives, and history in order to develop your own perspective and thesis. You can adjust the specifics of your topic as you develop your question in Step 2. In addition, sources of background information may differ by discipline so if you are struggling to locate sources, consider your topic area and consult your professor or librarian for more help.