Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Do Research

I’ve been down the research rabbit hole this week; it’s been nice being back in an environment where I’m doing grown-up research. To that end, I’m currently working on earning the seething contempt of my third Interlibrary Loan office; Monday, I sent them 45 article requests. To their credit they didn’t come back to me with an email that just said, “Are you fucking kidding me with this right now?”*

Here’s the thing about research: it’s a skill. And it’s a learned skill. Some of it you can learn from someone else — we all had that research unit in grade 7 English, right? — and some of it you pick up as you go. I know how to learn what I want to know because I’ve spent years learning by trial and error how to find the information in the first place.

Here’s what I’ve learned that no one taught me (and would have been useful information to have):



1. You have to be flexible – sometimes the information you want doesn’t exist or can’t be obtained (I’m running into this problem with a particular special journal issue on football in the post-Yugoslavia/war Balkans…which would be a huge asset because one of my term papers is on how inter-club football politics in the Balkans are reflective of the broader ethnic and political tensions of the region). Sometimes that means you’ll have to change topics; sometimes — like in the case of my football paper — it just means that you’ll be shy a few potentially valuable sources. Rigid research is your enemy. Rigid research will kill your paper because you’ll either be under-researched or off-topic. Be flexible, and you’ll be okay.

2. Preliminary research will make or break your paper – an hour of time spent in preliminary research will save you three scrambling hours down the road. You can’t fake sources (well, you can, I guess, but that’s generally frowned upon); if your scope was too narrow in the preliminary phase, your research will be lacking. It is much easier to grab too much in the preliminary stage and sort through it than it is to scramble to find more in the writing stage.

3. Embrace your sources – Use every database you have available to you (within reason…there’s no need to search the education databases if you’re writing on Russia/Ukraine politics), get acquainted with Google Scholar**, make friends with the Interlibrary Loan librarians. The ILL librarians are the best allies you’ve got; they’re the ones getting you the sources you can’t readily access so be good to them.


Preliminary research:

4. The right keywords are everything – if you’re searching the wrong keywords, you’re finished before you start. Consider any and all alternate wordings — for the above paper, I didn’t just search football together with Balkan or Yugoslavia, I also searched with Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and, independently, clubs specific to Sarajevo, Zagreb and Split, Belgrade, and Ljubljana. Consider eliminating unnecessary words that could expand your search results — transnational crime will return more results than transnational organized crime.

5. You have to start big – you can have an idea of what your paper is on, but — and this is especially in grad school where you’re given a lot of leeway to study what interests you — until you know what information is available to you, you don’t really know what you’re writing about. It might seem like the best thing to do is start with the topic and work your way out, but if you’re looking at the bigger picture, it’s much easier to see connections you might otherwise have missed. One of the papers I’ve been doing research for this week started as a paper on transnational organized crime in conflict zones, but my prelim research showed me that I’d do well to do a comparative study of TOC in Turkey and Nigeria.

6. You have to be picky straight away – because you’re starting big, you also have to be picky or you’ll be overwhelmed by how much information there is. Limit by date. Limit by region. Limit by economy. Limit by something, but limit. I started with the idea of TOC in conflict zones, which is a huge topic. But I’m also looking at post- 9/11 governance, so my research doesn’t need to include anything before about 2004 because global governance prior to that is outdated. There, in the click of a mouse, I’ve significantly reduced the number of sources I need to review.

7. You have to see the patterns – if you’ve done your research properly, your topic is somewhere in your results, but you’re going to have to sift through to find it. The fastest way to do this is to review titles. Look for the similarities, look for what can be tied to current or historical events, look for patterns and trends within the scholarship. Toss the results that don’t fit your topic or are so tangentially related that you won’t be touching on the subject matter. Save things that you’re on the fence about; most of them will be superfluous information, but some will be useful. Usually, for me this category is broader material that gets used mostly as background information.


Topic research:

8. You have to develop the ability to judge a source quickly – unless you’re doing your thesis or dissertation research, you don’t have time to read every article that’s tangentially related to your topic, so you have to develop your skill at deciding at a glance whether a source will be useful and, if so, how useful it will be. Sometimes, the title tells you what you need to know. “International Drug Trafficking and the National Security of Turkey” can’t really be much clearer on its topic. Often, the abstract is your best friend. If your source has an abstract, read it; it will tell you what the article is about. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you don’t even have to read the abstract, you just scan it for keywords.

9. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) read every word – sources that are most related to your work you’ll read (mostly) word for word; sources that are less related you’ll learn to skim to find the information relevant to what you’re writing about. Figuring out which sources fall into which category is a skill you’ll have to pick up with time.

10. Pay attention to the sources your sources cite – sometimes, you’ll come across multiple sources that all cite Source X. Get Source X if you don’t already have it; there’s a reason it’s being cited repeatedly. Sometimes, depending on your discipline, the list of sources your source provides might be very useful in locating governmental documents you didn’t know existed — especially if you’re dealing in foreign governments like I usually am.

I can’t stress enough the importance of scanning the works cited/bibliography page of an article or book. No matter how good your prelim research is, you’re always going to miss something, and there is no better way to collect valuable sources you’ve overlooked than the works cited/bibliography.

11. Sort as you go – sorting your research as you go means that you can more easily see the patterns and connections that will make up the bulk of your argument. Not only will this better direct your focus as you’re working through your sources (which will lead to a better argued paper), if you’re doing it right, your research will write your paper for you. My thesis for my first MA was 170 pages. I wrote it in roughly 72 total hours over about 12 days. Yes, it had to be edited some, but because of the way I’d done my research***, the entire thing all but wrote itself.


In the end, the reason I’m better at research than most people is because I’m more efficient at research than most people. I’ve taught myself how to streamline the process. I also don’t find research especially difficult; it’s time consuming and requires hard work, but it isn’t difficult. And it certainly doesn’t have to be a tedious slog.


*And to the credit of the ILL librarians at the schools where I did my first MA and my PhD work, they never did either and I sent them on much more difficult searches. “There’s one copy of this book in the world…it’s in Denmark…go!”

**You. Guys. Google Scholar is the. best.

***Full disclosure: I still use notecards for book research. I also use highlighters, flags, margin notes, notes on scraps of paper, random stars, and a handful of other things to sort and organize my research so that when it comes time for the writing, I can whip out a nearly-fully formed graduate thesis in less than two weeks.

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