Have you ever heard a song and really wanted to have it in your own collection? How did you go about satisfying that need? Chances are, you had to:

  • Investigate to find out the song’s title:
    (“E.T.,” “The Lazy Song,” “Born This Way,” “Latinoamérica”)
  • Investigate to find out who performed the song:
    (Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Kanye West, Calle 13)
  • Investigate to find out what CD that song was on:
    (Teenage Dream, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, Born This Way, Entren Los Que Quieran)
  • Investigate to find out where—or if—you could buy that CD or mp3s.

You can’t—and won’t—get what you want without investigating.

And it’s really no different with researching. To find what you want and need, you will have to investigate.

Why Is Investigating So Important in Your Research?

how you ask and where you look equals what you get

Researching takes a lot of your time and your effort.

The wrong approach can waste your time and effort and result in a paper you know your professors won’t want—and a grade you don’t want.

So, Where Do You Start Investigating?

Researching is a process:

  • Identifying a topic
  • Analyzing the assignment so you know what you are expected to accomplish
  • Writing a thesis statement
  • Searching for important information to support your thesis statement
  • Working the information you find into the paper you are writing

Investigating Step 1: Analyzing the Assignment

Resist the temptation to start researching immediately. Don’t waste your time diving into research until you know what the assignment requires.

  • Is it a report?
  • Is it an analytical paper?
  • Is it an argumentative essay?

You need to know before you begin! The type of assignment will determine what kind of research you need to do, and how you need to organize and present that research in your paper. Even an “A” quality report can earn an “F” if the assignment is to write an argumentative essay.

Consider the differences in these assignments:

  • Basic Report: Pretty easy. You’ll simply have to find information on your topic and present it as it appears.
  • Analytical Paper: A little harder. You’ll have to explore multiple aspects of your topic and present your research findings objectively without attempting to persuade the reader to take a stand.
  • Argumentative Paper: You’ll have to take a “stand” on a particular issue in your topic and use your research to support your argument.

Most professors will tell you explicitly what they want for an assignment. If they don’t, you can tell a lot by looking for certain terms in the assignment instructions.

A ripped piece of paper featuring the following portion of text: “assignment consists of a descriptive and historical account . . . with store branches in at least 10 different states. The chain . . . any company that falls within the definition of retailing in. . .” The phrase “descriptive and historical account” is highlighted.
Assignment Terms in instructions
Describe, summarize
Analytical paper
Explain, compare and contrast
Argumentative paper
Argue, persuade, evaluate

Examples of Papers on Tattooing

  • Report: This paper will explore the history of tattooing in the United States.
  • Analytical paper: This paper will explain differences in attitudes toward tattooing in the 1960s and 1990s.
  • Argumentative paper: This paper will argue that tattoos present serious health risks to adolescents.

Investigating Step 2: Identifying a topic

Deciding on a topic to research can be frustrating.

What SHOULD you choose for a topic? Your answer may be “I have no idea what I want.” But don’t let this bog you down. Topics are all around you every day.

Choose your topic as carefully as you would choose someone you wanted to date. Would you enjoy dating someone who was dull, annoying, or had totally different interests from you? Then why spend a few days, weeks, or even months with a topic you don’t like only to be graded on it?

Topics don’t have feelings, but you do, so try to choose something that interests you. Even if your professor assigns you a topic, you can choose an aspect of that topic that interests you.

Investigating Step 3: Writing a working thesis statement

All the time and effort you put into researching is wasted unless you can focus on what you need. How do you do that? By establishing a working thesis statement. Plan to revise it several times as you learn more about your topic.

A working thesis statement helps you concentrate on what you want and ignore information that is irrelevant. Consider the following working thesis statement.

Profilers have played a necessary role in catching serial killers.

Using this statement for a paper allows you to skip over the sources:

  • that do not deal with profiling.
  • that do not deal with the apprehension of serial killers.
  • that deal only with the injustices of “racial profiling.”

A good working thesis statement saves you time and keeps you focused.

Avoiding Poor Thesis Statements

It is important not only to have a thesis statement, but to have a good one. An inadequate thesis statement is almost as bad as not having one at all.

Here are examples of thesis statements you’ll want to avoid—because they’ll lead to weak papers with poor grades:

Why Is This Unsuitable?

Man has had major impact on the environment.
  • Way too vague and broad.
  • What constitutes “major impact”?
  • What aspects of the environment are we talking about?
  • What century are we talking about?

Why Is This Unsuitable?

Marijuana use in Mishawaka, Indiana, has been a problem for law enforcement since the 1970s.
  • Even if it is true, it is too local and narrow to be supported with national or scholarly research.
  • Sources would probably be limited to local newspaper articles and personal interviews.
  • Can you make those sources “stretch” across a 10 page research paper? Not likely.

Why Is This Unsuitable?

Miley Cyrus is a horrible singer.
  • Because the statement is largely an unfocused opinion.
  • What exactly is “horrible”?
  • How does Miley Cyrus fall into that category?
  • Do you think there are many books or research articles that could support this topic? Probably not.

Forming Your Research Question

basketballA good working thesis statement can often be converted into a question, which is typically called your research question. Consider these examples:

  • Working thesis statement: Younger basketball players “turning pro” continue to ruin the quality of the NBA.
  • Research question: How have younger professional basketball players ruined the quality of the NBA?
  • Working thesis statement: The rise in teenage obesity is directly related to the fast food industry.
  • Research question: What has the fast food industry done to contribute to the rise in teenage obesity?

Notice that neither of these questions can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” The quest of your research efforts is to find sources that answer your research question.

Turn Your Topic into a Question

When you’ve chosen a topic, it’s time to ask some questions. Using “environmental issues” as our general research interest, let’s ask some questions about environmental issues and agriculture.

  • How: How do government agricultural subsidies impact the price of food?  How does the use of pesticides affect food safety?
  • Who: Consumers, farmers, farm workers
  • What: Food safety, pesticides, food prices, genetically modified food, organic farming
  • Where: United States, developing nations, European Union
  • Why: Why does the European Union ban the sale and distribution of genetically modified food?

Which is Better?

For each pair, select the better research question:

  1. Is global warming harmful? OR What are the adverse effects of global warming?
  2. What factors influence the operating costs of physicians? OR Do doctors charge too much?


  1. What are the adverse effects of global warming?
  2. What factors influence the operating costs of physicians?

Not every thesis statement can be supported. You may search for sources to support your thesis statement and come up empty.

Investigating Step 4: Searching for Information

Some topics may be too current or too obscure for coverage in academic journals. Or you may find too many articles to wade through if your research question is broad. Be flexible with your topic, thesis statement, and research question. Revising them early in the process based on what you DO find will save you time in the long run.

A web search for “south bend mercury exposure” There is a message reading “Sorry, your search did not match any records.”

Review of the Investigating Process

Let’s wrap up the process of investigating:
  • Plan! Plan! Plan! You will save time and effort if you do.
  • Not all papers are created equal. Examine each assignment carefully and pick research resources accordingly.
  • Be flexible. If you feel as if you are spinning your wheels, re-evaluate your topic, thesis, or research question and revise if necessary.

Test Yourself!

  1. Which of the following would make the best research question to guide an 8-page analytical research paper?
    1. Is fast food bad for children?
    2. Do fast food companies focus their advertisements on children?
    3. How do fast food companies create effective advertisements aimed at children?
  2. Which type of assignment requires you to explore multiple aspects of your topic and present your research findings without attempting to persuade the reader to take a position?
    1. basic report
    2. analytical paper
    3. argumentative paper
  3. Your professor has assigned a 6-page report about an environmental issue. Which of the following would make the best topic (not too narrow or too broad)?
    1. Air pollution in urban areas
    2. Respiratory diseases in children in high density areas
    3. Environmental consequences of California’s October 2007 forest fire.
    4. Renewable energy in the United States.
  4. Which is the first step in investigating your research topic?
    1. Citing your sources
    2. Searching a database
    3. Reading a scholarly article about the topic
    4. Analyzing the assignment
  5. Which of the following statements about thesis statements is NOT correct?
    1. A good thesis statement saves you time and keeps you focused.
    2. Every thesis statement can be supported by research.
    3. A thesis statement helps you concentrate on what you want and ignore information that is irrelevant.
    4. A good thesis statement can often be converted into a question.


  1. 1.3; Questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” generally do not make the best research question. It is preferable to start your question with “How”, “What”, or “Why.”
  2. 2.2
  3. 3.2 is a good topic that you can continue to refine as you learn more about it.
  4. 4.4; The type of assignment will determine what kind of research you need to do so you should begin by first analyzing the assignment.
  5. 5.2; A good thesis statement will save you time and keep you focused and will help you concentrate on the information you need; A good thesis statement can often be converted into a question. However, not every thesis statement can be supported by research because the topic may be too current or too obscure.