Bard College at Simon's Rock: the Early College
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Research Methods

It’s not always obvious how to get started or carry out your research. We have a few strategies to help you.

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Choosing a Topic

The first step of any research project is to understand the assignment. If this is not done, you will often travel down dead-end roads, wasting time along the way. Make sure you know the parameters:

  • Is the topic area already defined by the instructor or is it open-ended?
  • What kind of assignment is it? A research paper will have different requirements than a simpler assignment.
  • If it's a paper, are there length requirements?
  • Are there requirements about the quantity and types of resources you must use?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can get started on selecting a topic. Brainstorming can be a successful way to get some ideas down on paper. Seeing one's ideas in writing is often an impetus for the writing process. Though brainstorming is particularly effective when a topic has been chosen, it can also be a way to help narrow a topic. Make it a timed writing session and jot down in list or bulleted form any ideas that come to your mind. At the end of the timed period, peruse your list for patterns. If it appears that something seems to be standing out in your mind, pursue this as a topic possibility.

Keep in mind that an initial topic may not be the exact topic about which you end up writing. Research topics are often fluid, and dictated more by your ongoing research than by the original topic. Such fluidity is common in research, and should be embraced as one of its many characteristics.

Laying Your Research Foundation

Start your research by collecting background information on your subject. A good way to do this is by using tertiary resources. A tertiary source compiles and presents concise, factual information on a collection of topics in one place. One essential quality of these sources is that they are generally consulted briefly for a particular entry, not read through from beginning to end. Entries are usually organized alphabetically for easy look-up. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and atlases are all examples.

Tertiary sources are particularly good places to begin your research, because they’ll give you a basic grounding in the topic and an understanding of the larger context, so that you can intelligently pursue more in-depth sources of information. Background information might include an overview of the topic, educate you about subject-specific terminology, and give you ideas about how to focus your research.

Finding tertiary sources

Start with a general resource, like Britannica Academic. Then find more discipline- or subject- specific sources.

Online sources

Print sources

  • Find print sources by searching the Library Catalog by keyword, for example:
    • encyclopedia art, encyclopedia religion, encyclopedia myth, encyclopedia folklore, etc.
    • dictionary art, dictionary religion, dictionary symbolism, dictionary myth, etc.
    • atlas historical, atlas ocean, etc.
  • Wild card: inserting * will broaden your search – for example, history* will find instances of history, historical, historicism, etc.; myth* will find myth, mythology, mythological, etc.
  • Using the “Limit by” dropdown menu, select Reference Collection.

Tertiary sources are a specialized type of source used as a part of your research process. Often, tertiary sources won’t even appear in your list of works cited, because they’re used so early in the research process. They’re starting places that help lead you to the sources you’ll eventually quote and cite in your papers.

Multiple Viewpoints

When presenting your ideas, it’s always a good idea to acknowledge difference of opinion and discuss those differences as a part of your writing. Keep this in mind as you do research, looking not only for information that agrees with you, but also that which does not. Sometimes you may want to specifically investigate different points of view on an issue. These resources can help you do that:

Tracking Down a Citation

A great tool for your research is the bibliography in a scholarly book, article, or tertiary source. When you find a great book or article on your topic, you can mine their references for more sources! The only problem is, you may come up with a citation that's pure gold, but how do you get a copy of the item? Your first stop is to see whether the library has it, of course!

  • Use our Search Everything service to search by title (book title, article title, or journal title).
  • If the library doesn’t have your item, submit an interlibrary loan request. Delivery times vary, but many articles are received electronically within 48-72 hours, while books generally take 3-7 days to arrive.