Research in College Part 1: Thinking of Ideas for Social Sciences

No matter what kind of university you end up attending, it’s likely that you’ll have a write a research paper at some point. As a linguist, I’ve had to write countless research papers in both my undergrad and graduate career, but no one really taught me how to come up with ideas until I got into my master’s program. Sometimes ideas come naturally and sometimes you have to force yourself to write a paper you’re not really into, but there’s no other choice but to do some research and write it up, especially when there’s deadlines involved. Unfortunately, I can’t speak for research papers in other fields because I am a linguist through an through, but linguistics is a social science, so if you’re in a social science field and need help thinking of ideas for your next research paper, here are some tips:

1 Use your syllabus & textbooks

I know from experience that your final paper proposal will most likely be due before you cover all the topics in class. That’s the fact of life when you have so much material to cram, in so little time. The first place to look if you can’t think of any ideas is your syllabus. If you’re lucky, your syllabus will have the topics with page numbers associated with articles and textbooks. Go through your syllabus and pick out all the topics that sound interesting to you. After that, go find the articles or page numbers in your textbook and read up. Not only will you get ideas in areas you’re interested in, but textbooks cite researchers and the year the study was published, and articles have their references at the end. Make sure to look over those additional resources because you might find an interesting study that you want to replicate or base your own study off of.

2 Look at yourself and the world around you

Though research is about advancing the knowledge in the field, research should ideally also be something you enjoy. Look at the languages you speak, the languages you’re interested in, and look at your personal experiences. Are you a heritage speaker of X? How has this affected your life, and how can you generalize these things to the wider population around you? Are you from a community that code-switches? What are some of the comments you’ve heard about that phenomenon? Look at what’s going on the world around you, how political climate affects X, Y, and Z, look at all these different things. Sometimes, drawing from your own life can be difficult because it feels so natural to you. But once you take classes and learn about certain things, once you observe these things in real life, it becomes even more fascinating. Also, you can tell I’m very interested in social issues, but there’s always room for these observations to go into researching things like phonology, syntax, semantics, etc. You just have to connect the dots.

3 Talk to your professors and TAs

(what they’re interested in, what you’re interested in)

Your professors are quite literally, experts. And your TAs are quite literally, experts in training. They know a lot about their field and they know even more about their specializations within their fields. If you love a certain class you’re taking, I encourage you to talk to your professors about their work within the field, as well as things you’re curious about and would like to research, whether its for class or sometime in the future. If you’re interested in a certain language and/or a certain phenomenon in that language, you could always ask them if anything has been previously done in the field and if they can point you toward some sources that would help you in your research. Additionally, if they’re experts in a couple different fields that don’t overlap with all of your interests, they might be able to put you in contact with someone else who knows a lot about your topic.

4 Read. A lot.

What is studying social science without a lot of reading? Social scientists read theories upon theories and studies that put these theories into practice. You’ll never be short of concepts and research articles. Your classes will give you lots to read, and I briefly touched on this in point #1, but look at your syllabus and look at the references at the end of the book/chapter and at the end of the articles. There, you’ll (hopefully) find a goldmine of other articles you can look into if you’re interested. Reading a lot also gives you a sense of what’s going on in the field–what has been studied already and what should be studied; reading theories may help you connect theory to things that have happened in your own life, and there you can craft a research idea. The more you read, the more knowledgable you’ll be about the field and the different ideas that are bouncing around. In a lot of papers, researchers state both the research gap (topics that researchers haven’t looked at yet and should, because it’ll be beneficial for some reason) and their own weaknesses (things that could be done better or things that could be fixed for the next time); you can take these comments and suggestions and make them into your own paper. Just make sure you credit them.

5 Keep a notebook

One of my professors always stresses this, but keep a research notebook. Whether it’s electronic on your laptop or cell phone, or a physical notebook, it’s always good to keep something with you so you can jot down ideas. You never know when an idea will come to you, especially because social interactions are happening everywhere, and for linguists, language is going on everywhere whether its spoken, signed, or written. Keep all your ideas in there. Whether it sounds dumb to you later, keep it anyways, because you might be able to improve upon it to make it something doable in the future. Also, it’s great for forgetful minds, just because it’s likely that you already have so much going on.

6 Read in and around your field of study

Kind of similar to #4, but I want to stress that sometimes it’s important to read literature outside of your field of study. Fields like linguistics, especially sociolinguistics, pull from so many other fields like sociology, social psychology, and linguistic anthropology. Don’t write off an article just because it comes from the journal of Human Communication or The Journal of Social Psychology. Many linguistics research studies can be based off of theories from other fields, but the way in which they’re examining those theories is through language.

7  What kind of population do you want to get to know?

Another thing I would like to discuss is what kind of population you would like to examine. Some classes and professors might have guidelines for this, but the run down is: qualitative versus quantitative. Researchers of qualitative studies look at a couple of individuals in depth and conduct interviews, discourse analyses, collect written diaries, etc. You’re pretty much getting to know a handful of people really well, and the great thing is is that you don’t have to have more than one participant (depending on your topic). Quantitative studies, you guessed it, looks at quantity. These are most likely your typical surveys and questionnaires where you’re gathering a lot of data from a lot of people; you’ll most likely have to know how to use statistical programs to do the analysis, but your professor probably won’t expect you to do this if it’s not common/a requirement in your department to take classes like this. So, the takeaway: how many people do you want to get for your study and how much in depth do you want to go? Side note: certain topics can be looked at multiple ways, it just depends on your perspective (e.g. my topic is attitudes of heritage language speakers in the U.S. I could collect survey data from 100 participants about how they feel, or I could interview a few people and have them discuss their attitudes in depth).

8 Feasibility

Lastly, feasibility. One of the biggest factors deciding your college research project is whether or not you can actually carry out the project. Do you have enough time to do what you want to do? Do you have the participants you need to carry out your research? Do you have the equipment you need to do your research? These are all questions you should ask yourself if your professor is wanting you to carry out a small research project for your class. For example, it would not be feasible for me to fly to Brazil and collect data because I wouldn’t have the time nor the money to do that. Sometimes, this aspect sucks because you can’t research what you really want to. There are work-arounds to this, like if you have friends in a certain country, asking them to give out questionnaires to their friends or asking your friends to do a Skype interview. Class projects are pretty much: do the best you can do with the time and resources that you have around you. If you ever go on to do a master’s or a PhD, that might be the time where you can carry out your dreams of writing a dissertation about your fieldwork somewhere in the world.


Did I miss anything? What are your tips and tricks for coming up with research ideas? Thanks for dropping by 😘

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