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How to write a successful research piece at university

Maggie Tighe, BA music and classics graduate from University College Cork and previous winner of the Global Undergraduate Awards and judge on the panel this year, shares her top tips on how to write a successful research piece 

    Maggie Tighe's avatar

    Maggie Tighe

    Panel judge for the Global Undergraduate Awards
    November 27 2023
    Students having fun during study in library


    Whether it’s a final year dissertation or a shorter project, most students will be asked to write at least one research essay during their time at university. As a previous global winner and judge of the Global Undergraduate Awards, I have seen both sides of the process and hope to shine some light on writing a research paper that you can be proud of.

    1. Pick a topic you are interested in 

    First, find an area that you’re interested in. If what you’re researching is something you’re passionate about and appeals to your interests, you’re more likely to produce a higher standard of work. After choosing your topic you will need to narrow it down to a research question (or questions) that your essay will explore and hopefully answer. Once you have a query, you can start gathering as much data and literature as possible to support your research.

    At this stage, you don’t need to be reading every article you find in depth. A good way to see whether an article is relevant is to read the abstract, introduction and conclusion. If after this you can see it will be useful to your research, hold on to it for further reference.

    Be aware that you will probably need to find more supporting literature or data as you write the essay, because you might come across queries that you hadn’t considered at the start. But it’s always a good idea to have a good collection to begin with.

    In my undergraduate degree, I was recommended to include a citation at a minimum of every 200 words, but ideally more often. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but ideally every point you make, no matter how big or small, needs to be supported with primary or secondary references.

    1. Plan your essay structure thoroughly 

    Clearly map the body of the project before you begin writing. I recently wrote my master’s in philosophy dissertation on three plays. I divided my essay into three sections, one for each play, but I also broke down each section.

    I wanted a minimum of three points for each play and, even within that, I mapped out the individual arguments, down to the paragraph, for each point. I also apply these subdivisions to the overall word count. You don’t have to stick to it – some sections will naturally end up longer than others, but it’s good to have a word limit in place to ensure all parts of your essay receive equal attention. 

    The beginning of the essay must include a thesis statement. Clearly outline your aims with a methodology and some reference to what you expect your conclusions to be. Your methodology doesn’t need to be complicated, but you need to have a systematic approach to your data.

    When I was writing my submission to the Global Undergraduate Awards, I was analysing a text with many individual episodes. I highlighted my chosen episodes and why they were relevant to my paper in the introduction and methodically analysed them in order of appearance.

    How to reference at university level
    What is the difference between a postgraduate taught master’s and a postgraduate research master’s?
    Undergraduate students can submit research to global research awards

    If you have a clearly structured research project, it will help support your argument. Subtitles are a great way to help create a coherent layout, whether they stay in your drafts and are taken out later or kept in to help inform readers.

    If the body of your essay is not logically structured and understandable, even if you have made a brilliant argument, the reader will be unable to follow, and it is likely to hurt your overall grade. Before starting to write, I always have a separate document with a good collection of secondary sources, the primary material I will be referencing and a clear map of the essay’s structure.

    1. Be flexible 

    What happens more often than people realise is that research essays change and evolve as you write them and there’s no way of predicting this before you start. If you have gathered enough information before beginning to write, you will reduce the chances of this happening, but sometimes it will be inevitable.

    Maybe your data isn’t aligning with your aims as nicely as you’d expect, or perhaps you’ve discovered an unexpected trend. How you deal with these surprises can make or break your essay. If you need to change the direction of your project completely, that’s absolutely fine and you will have a more informed piece at the end of the process. If you choose to tackle particular challenges head on and can supply well thought-out and supported explanations, it will really bolster your argument. 

    1. Pay attention to detail 

    Attention to detail is extremely important. Many great research essays do not receive the marks they deserve because of small mistakes. Assuming knowledge, even if the reader is an expert in the area, can reduce the strength of your argument. In my final-year research project, I included a short description of the text I was analysing even though my supervisor had taught a full module on it. I believe this helped contextualise my work for the judges when I sent this paper to the Global Undergraduate Awards.

    The time taken to correct typos, check whether your department has guidelines for certain citation styles or even fonts and spacing is not wasted. You could have a strong and well thought-out argument, but if your formatting is messy or your essay is not clearly laid out it could affect your result. 

    Finally, don’t forget to proofread. Change the font, print it out or give it to a friend. Our eyes skip over what we’ve read before and can miss small mistakes if we’re not careful. 

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