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How to Write a Research Paper

Research is an essential part of just about every profession. If you don’t believe me, check out the research journals out there. Professionals love research! But knowledge about research—namely, how to do it and what to do with it—is not as plentiful as the journals that publish the research.

This blog post is designed to give you a broad overview of how to write a research paper for the professional world (hint: it’s different than your ninth-grade term paper!). But, please note that research practices are highly specialized, so you should consult more specialized guides for research after reading this overview.

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What is research?

Broadly speaking, in any profession, there are those who research. Research can take multiple forms, looking into the past history of that profession, or studying trends in a field, or even expounding and articulating hypotheses about how and why a profession works; research is, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster, the “studious inquiry or examination; especially investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws.”

In short, if you want to know what, how, or why (among other things), you gotta research.

A research paper, then, is any method in which to communicate your findings from your research.

So, how do I go about doing research?

Again, I cannot stress the following enough: Research practices are highly specialized, and you should consult more specialized guides for research after reading this overview.

Take, for example, the topic consumer behavior.

Say that I run a company that sells dog collars. I want to know who my potential consumers are and how they will respond to a new type of collar that I want to introduce to the market. I may set up a focus group where I ask individuals how they respond to my new product and the products of my competitors. I may have someone observe people in a pet store where my dog collars are sold and ask them to fill out a short survey about their experience. I may even look into historical trends about what types of dog collars have sold in the last five years. All of this would be research. And these are just a few possibilities; the examples balloon if you get into the academic world or even in a different market.

So, I say all of that to stress again that the form that research takes is specific to a profession, as are the ways in which that research is articulated to a professional field. This blog post is designed to give you an overview of how to put together a general research paper.

How to Write a Research Paper

After you have completed your research, you will want to share the good news with people in your profession who care about your findings! But what should you include?

Generally speaking, a good research paper has the following:

  1. An introduction or explanation of why this research was done.
  2. An overview of the methods you took in your research process.
  3. A discussion of the findings.
  4. A conclusion that includes the limitations and/or the implications of your findings.

Part 1: An Introduction

A good introduction should let your reader know the following things:

  1. Why you are doing the research. (Does your field need to know something that no one else has looked at? Are you introducing some new ideas?)
  2. What your research questions are.

There are other particulars that might be appropriate. For example, some research practices include letting the reader know what your findings are upfront. Other forms of research might require a more extensive theoretical framing or literature review. But in general, the two things above are the standards.

Part 2: Methods

The key thing about research being research is that there is some empirical data about your conclusions. In short, that means that you’re not just making stuff up.

In order for your findings to be valid, you need to make sure that your professional community knows how you went about gathering your data.

For example, if I go back to that study about dog collars, I need to not only let people know which approach I took, but I need to give them an understanding of where and when I collected the data, who the study participants were, and how I analyzed the data.

This is just the beginning, so I recommend that you look at example papers in your field for industry standards.

Part 3: Findings

At this point, I’m sure you know what I’m going to say: look at example papers in your field to know what’s expected. This will inform how to write a research paper in your specific area.

However, at a minimum, you want to tell your readers what your results were of your study and what they mean. You should be doing the heavy thinking at this point, letting the reader know how to make sense of your results. This would be the part of the research paper where you include any charts, tables, or graphs that are relevant to helping you tell the story of what you found in your research.

I cannot stress enough the importance of making sure that you communicate your results clearly. If you had a great study, but no one knows what your results were because of a lack of clarity, then the research project was a bit of a bust. This is one of the reasons why most researchers have labs or colleagues that they collaborate with; you want to run your findings by others to make sure they are sound and clear.

Part 4: A Conclusion

While we’ll be covering how to write an amazing conclusion paragraph in future blog posts, it is important to note how a conclusion in a research paper differs from a conclusion in a non-research paper.

In a research paper, you will want to make sure that you reiterate the importance of the study, perhaps re-articulating the research question and giving a brief overview of the findings. However, and perhaps most importantly, this is the time where you let your reader know one thing: what to do with the new knowledge you have given them.

That generally comes in two forms:

  1. An explanation of the limitations of your study results and/or
  2. A detailed look at the implications of your findings.

What these two things might mean for you in your paper may differ depending on your field.

For example, in the field that I work in, limitations are not stressed, but implications and next steps are hugely important. However, the psychologists I work with stress limitations in their conclusions.

I recommend seeking out example papers in respected journals in your field (here’s a great list for you to start with) to get examples of what is expected for you.

Final Thoughts

If you’re thinking, Wow. This is a lot of information on research papers.

Yes, it is.

And it’s nowhere near everything you need to know about how to write a research paper.

Continue to research on research, and I guarantee that when you write that first paper to submit to a colleague, boss, or your wider field, you will feel confident, informed, and, heck, maybe even excited; research is cool!

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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