See also: the Craft of Research Series.
This site is about the craft beneath the method at all levels of education. It applies to students as well as teachers, because being a student means becoming a scholar. Scholars are not just learned, they are learning. Students and teachers, therefore, share a common culture of research; they are engaged in a search for the truth together.
As a general rule, therefore, my advice is the same for first-year students and full professors. The same rules apply. In discourse, the problem for the scholar is always the same: to present what you have learned in such a way that it can be discussed among other knowledgeable people. If you care about knowledge then you want to open your mind, not just to new ideas, but to the criticism of your peers. This is what school, i.e., the site of scholarship, is all about. My aim is to help you make the most of this opportunity.
That said, the research process will naturally present itself differently to students at different levels, and my support and advice can, likewise, be adjusted to the skill level (and ambition) of the student.
For undergraduates, I strongly suggest you develop a sustainable habit of reading, writing and searching the literature. Make an effort to become academically “literate” by familiarizing yourself with the resources that a university provides. Set aside time on a regular basis, preferably at least a half hour every day, to read some scholarly prose, to write a paragraph or two about something you know, and to use the library’s databases to find a piece of relevant literature.
Master’s students should be honing their ability to compose clear and coherent prose essays. Remember that your last semester will be devoted largely to researching and writing a thesis that should demonstrate your academic competence. By the time you get there, you should feel at home in the scholarly discourse. You should be able to write confidently and read with comprehension. You should be able to recognize a citation and find the source of a quote or the basis of a claim. Your dissertation (and oral defense), remember, will be testing your ability to participate in a conversation with people who are knowledgeable about a particular subject.
PhD students should be thinking of themselves mainly as researchers. This means breaking away from the “authority” of teachers and seeing your supervisor as a peer. There is a temptation to fall into a habit of simply “obeying”, sometimes resentfully, the “orders” of your supervisors, editors and peer-reviewers. Try to avoid this. The main task now is building your relationships with your readers. You are trying to win their respect and trying to respect them. The key to respect is seeing others as you imagine they see you. You are trying to join a community of equals. You are not merely entering a hierarchical structure of intellectual authority.
Students in our professional master’s programs have a particular challenge. You are a practitioner who is taking a “break” from practice in order to adopt a more “theoretical” perspective on your work. The language of scholars, as well as their arguments and sources, will sometimes seem strange to you, and sometimes actually less “informed” than you are used to. Remember that we live in a “knowledge society”, which means that your power depends on your ability to leverage knowledge. Whether you agree with them or not, you want to be familiar with the conversation among experts that structures the perceptions of members of your profession.
For all students, please consider the value of the ability to write down any one thing you know in a properly sourced prose paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two hundred words in under half an hour. If you spend some of your time at school developing this ability, you will not regret the effort. That’s a promise.