The entire research process is a demanding, yet rewarding endeavor which can kindle a positive revolution within our scientific community when completed successfully. Thus, I would like to share with you how I go about initiating, processing, and completing a research project. To provide context, I successfully defended my Master’s thesis earlier than what is typically anticipated, and I am currently going about the same process for my PhD dissertation studies. While I do not claim to have all the answers, these tips may be especially helpful to first-year graduate researchers entering a program that requires completion of a thesis / dissertation project. I also hope to provide new information for anyone looking to initiate a new research project. In this post, I’ll go step-by-step through my methods for successfully completing research.
Step 1: Come prepared to bring the heat
A very basic requisite to starting a Master’s or PhD program is that you should have some semblance of an idea for a research project that you wish to accomplish during your time. This should be based off your program’s current area(s) of study, which you have chosen based on your personal research interests. It helps to come prepared with research ideas so that you initiate early discussions on these potential topics with your advisor. I came to my Master’s advisor, Clark Dickin, with 3 potential thesis ideas. After more detailed discussions early on in my studies, I finalized my thesis topic; Examining the influence of warm-up strategies on landing mechanics in female volleyball athletes. Those preliminary conversations helped my advisor gauge my personal research interests. This is something you want known from the onset to allow for more centered conversations, which will help guide your journey deeper into the research process. I had a very similar conversation with my PhD advisor, Janet Dufek, and we are now fully pursuing my dissertation studies; The influence of prior concussion injury on biomechanical landing strategies in adolescent and collegiate athletes.
Step 2: Get involved ASAP
At the start of my Master’s, I had very minimal research experience. My interest was spurred early by getting involved with the studies being completed by my advisor and second-year graduate students. I was able to learn how to create informed consent sheets, the ins-and-outs of IRB (a fun process at times…), the proper placement of landmarks on a participant, collecting and analyzing data, etc. Regardless of the field of study, more than likely you’ll be starting a graduate program without a ton of prior knowledge on the entire research process, so getting “in the trenches” from the onset is extremely beneficial, especially in fields that require multiple pieces of equipment for data analysis. Even if you have previous experience, every lab and research group is different and there will always be an adjustment period. This step requires you to be PROACTIVE. Take the necessary initiatives to learn the intricacies of your field and your lab/labmates, it will pay off in the long run once you’re tasked with completing your own research project.
Step 3: READ, READ, READ…systematically
Sound advice you will hear from most members of the scientific community in terms of research is to read, read, read. However, you have to be very smart in how you initiate your review of the current literature. A tip I was given early on from Joe Eisenmann, a previous mentor at Michigan State, is to start your overview of the research with comprehensive / systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Bonus points for reading literature that is from the last 5 years (+/-) in order to engage yourself in the most updated advances within your topic of interest. Typically, the most up-to-date systematic reviews/meta-analyses will provide great insight into a particular topic and have a reference list that runs into the hundreds. Collecting a large database of research from different authors also provides many different perspectives on the same (or relatively similar) research (more on this, in step 4). Your own personal investigations (through reading!) of these references will lead you well on your way to a thorough understanding of the research endeavor as it relates to what’s been completed previously, with your research providing new insight! In terms of reading research, I strive to read at least one related research article per day in an attempt to grow an expansive knowledge base of the specific topic, along with an understanding of related sub-topics.
Step 4: Create a master summary table
If you’ve followed me on Twitter long enough, you know I’m a very big advocate of creating a literature summary table. Below is an example from my current dissertation research.
After reading an article, noting the major aspects pertaining to the study has significantly improved my understanding of a particular author’s viewpoint and how it relates to the literature as a whole. In this sense, you are attacking an article from three distinct mediums: reading, writing, and summarizing in your own literature review for your thesis / dissertation (final step). In completing this summary table for an entire topic (i.e., lower extremity injury risk post-concussion), you will allow yourself the opportunity to explore what has been previously studied, but more importantly, a stepping stone to the next crucial steps needed to further the research. I’ve also found this method helps me get into the all-important “writing zone” for my own research- it is exciting to explore an area that has little to no research breath!! While on the surface a summary table may seem time consuming and daunting, when completed correctly it’s actually quite the opposite- especially when writing sub-sections of your literature review. Let me explain…
Step 5: The sectional summary tables
Whether it be a thesis or dissertation, your literature review will likely be broken into sections. In parallel, you’ll want to create sectional summary tables branching off your master summary table. This will help tremendously in keeping all related material in convenient locations. For example, you will notice in the summary figure above, I referenced Lau with a highlighted 1C, a designated category for my overall literature review. Further, I broke up the sections using summary table categorizations (see reference guide below). Utilizing the tables, along with CLT+F to find “key” words or phrases, will allow you to be more efficient in the writing process.
Step 6: Cue the horror music…writing your research paper
…BUT it doesn’t have to be if you have followed the previous five steps! The hardest part to writing a research paper is those first few typed lines, but writing out the summary tables should give you a great starting point. I have also found it extremely helpful to build (and defend!) time into each day that allows for writing the research paper. It can be 30 minutes or three hours, but writing each day helps generate and sustain the momentum necessary to produce effective work. One line leads to one paragraph, one paragraph leads to one page, and so on. By building on your previous work each day, you’ll not only make great progress, but you’ll feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Additionally, while most of our modern lives are electronic, it doesn’t hurt to save each daily document edits in a new file (noted with the date) in case said electronics do fail us. I’d also highly recommend sending portions of your writing to your advisor at a time, that way you can continue to write while your previous writing is being reviewed and continue to build on each step of this process.
One theme I’d like to you to take away from this post is the value of consistency. Whether it be staying up-to-date on the latest literature or writing your own document, consistency trumps all when it comes to research. Keep in mind that from start to finish, you are looking at a project that takes roughly 18 months to complete (at minimum). Those who are consistent in their endeavors usually produce the highest quality, and most applicable research. Whether you are a first-year graduate student or an experienced researcher-practitioner, I hope my experiences in the research process offers some information that may be helpful for your initiatives. As always, feel free to reach out! I’d love to hear from you in regards to methods that have been most beneficial to your research.