A Beginner's Guide to Master's Level Research

A Beginner's Guide to Master's Level Research

Thirteen years after completing my bachelor’s degree in English I’m finally back in school working on an M.A in Composition. Between my day job as a college career coach, my classwork, and the usual family and home priorities, writing on this blog just isn’t happening. Until now, when I get to share an assignment for my research methods class as a blog post.

In this post, I share some tips to choose a research topic, how and where to find credible sources, tips for citing sources in writing, and a couple of my favorite sources so far to learn more. This information is shared from my research experience for my work in Career Services and Student Success in a college setting. I also share some general tips that are helping me make the leap into writing for master’s coursework after over a decade of being out of school.

Choose a Research Topic

An important foundation to any research writing is choosing a topic that is personally motivating and professionally practical. While I’m currently only two classes into my master’s, getting this right is making the difference between my undergrad work and my current work. A clear invigorating topic brings me back to the computer and is useful in my work. Here are some ways I’ve chosen research topics that are motivating and practical.

Write down all the ideas.
In anticipation of my first class, I started a document brainstorming all the interests I might want to explore over the course of completing my master’s. This included topics I wish I had explored in my undergrad, areas of interest I’ve found since then, and research that might help me do my job better.

Consider: What are your academic areas of interests, and how might those areas overlap? What fascinates, inspires, or motivates you? What questions do you wish you had time to explore? What magazines, journals, books, or articles are you naturally drawn to? If you were to spend an evening Googling information, what would you search?

Make it relevant.
Think about what research would make your job easier or help you do your job better, but you just haven’t had time for. What project are you doing at work that you could do more research on to support your work?

For example: I was asked to lead some writing sessions in our pre-semester bridge program, so I decided to make that my research topic. Instead of choosing random writing assignments, I was able to come up with some research-backed activities for my sessions. I now feel more confident with the sessions I’ve created. As a bonus I aced my project and was encouraged to work on it for publication--a timely topic for you is likely timely for others in your field.

Get curious and ask questions.
Looking back on my undergrad experience, curiosity was an area that could have improved my research. I don’t naturally ask a lot of questions, which can make research fall flat. So with my master’s, I’ve been working on asking more questions.

Go-to questions include: What are the best practices? What is the history behind this? What does the research or the experts or the professionals say about this? How does this connect to this other topic I’m interested in? What are the other opinions on this idea? How has someone else solved this problem? What are the barriers or the support for this?

You get the idea--ask questions! Then let those spur you on in search of answers. An added bonus: If a particular topic doesn’t stir up many questions for you, it’s possible it might not be a good one to research or needs some tweaking.

Do preliminary research.
Choosing a specific topic and stubbornly sticking to it no matter what the research shows does not lead to inspired or practical research. Choosing a topic, at first, is simply a starting point. Often, after a preliminary search for information, the topic will start to become more refined, specific, and applicable. A preliminary search can also help decide between a couple possible topics based on volume of sources or articles that draw you in to learn more.

Find Credible Sources

Research seems to have only gotten easier in my years since undergrad. Part of that is thanks to the growth and learning that continues to happen in adulthood, but much of it is also thanks to technology and increasing availability of credible sources online. Of course, questionable sources have also increased exponentially. Looking in credible places can make all the difference.

Places to begin...

  • A university library is the perfect place to start. Online searches have gotten easier with access to even more articles. As a preliminary search that can also give you an idea of the main journals for your field. When I did research on teaching writing, a recurring valuable source was College Composition and Communication. In my current research on life coaching I’ve discovered the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching & Mentoring and the Journal of College and Career.
  • Google Scholar has also become a “thing” since the last time I was in school providing Google-friendly searches focused on scholarly sources. There, I found the full text of the book Quality of Life Therapy which was only showing up in fragments in the university search.
  • My personal favorite is our local city library. When a search in my university library online suggests a hardcopy of a book, I search my local library so I can get it sooner since I’m a remote student. Plus, books are some of my favorite sources since they go more in-depth into topics. In my search on teaching writing, I came across the suggestion of the book Teaching Queer and checked it out the next day from my local library.
  • Look at references other authors cite. Authors tend to reference a lot of other great sources. So looking in the notes section of a book or the references section of a journal article can bring up even more great sources to check out. In my search about using a Wheel of Life in life coaching, Frisch was referenced for his work creating the Quality of Life Inventory (QOLI) and his material has proven to be an invaluable resource on the topic of self-evaluation on various categories of life.
  • Hoopla is an extension of our local library. When I’m looking for a book, I do a search to see if there’s a digital copy I can reference on Hoopla for quicker access. It makes reading easy to take with me. I’ve also found some great reads to grow in my various fields, like the ebook version of Five Paths to Student Engagement.

Deciphering credible sources...

As I mentioned, a big part in deciphering credible sources is in looking where the source was found. Credibility can vary some by field. For example, psychiatry requires scholarly, researched-based content written by fellow professionals in the field and published in legitimate journals; while life coaching is a more diverse field with valuable practice-based content shared in magazines or on websites.

Here are some questions that can help decipher credibility:

  • Who is the author? Are they educated, trained, and experienced as required in the field? Are they revered or quoted by other professionals in the field?
  • Who is the publisher? Are they well-known in the field? Do they vet their content for legitimacy?
  • What sources do they cite? Have they done their own research from other scholarly sources?

Source examples for a college career coach…

My current “field” is a combination of college education, career services, life coaching, and academic advising. Appropriate sources depend on the work I’m doing.

  • College, of course, leans toward needing scholarly journals and books that are research-based.
  • Career services can involve scholarly sources, specifically prioritizing National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) resources and best practices. It also allows room for practical books and websites for up-to-date tips for career preparation.
  • Life coach training is legitimized by accreditation from the International Coaching Federation (ICF), but since it is about practical goal-setting and accountability there is room for seeking ideas from fellow coaches online or in personal growth books.
  • Academic advising in a college setting leans toward needing scholarly sources, and specifically refers to the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) which offers journals, research, and courses on academic advising.

My choice of sources for my research depends on:

  • Which area of my work I’m researching as described above;
  • the audience I plan to share it with (i.e., academic leadership at the college where I work who might want research-based information versus my fellow coaches who might want practical ideas to use with students); and
  • the final product being created (i.e., the capstone for my last class required scholarly sources while this blog post does not specify).

Cite Sources in Writing

Finally, research is only personally beneficial until it is put into a format that can be shared with others. How that is done depends on the assignment specifications, of course, but is also determined by the field being written about as described above. A college setting generally follows APA format, composition uses MLA, and life or career coaching would depend on the end product or who it’s being shared with. Some handy guides for proper formatting and citing of sources can be found at Bibliography.com.

No matter what field being researched, using a large amount of or lengthy quotes is generally discouraged. Sources are meant to guide and influence one’s own learning, then rewritten in the student’s own words with occasional or shortened quotes when the published author says it best succinctly themselves.

The end product also matters. I shared the research from my last class with my coworkers in a presentation. There, I briefly summarized my findings without directly quoting any of my sources, and listed the references at the end. The capstone paper that compiled that same research included select direct quotes from the sources I cited, which I did in APA format for my fellow college colleagues, even though the topic of composition would typically lend toward MLA.

Learn More

Following are sources cited in this article that can also be viewed to learn more:


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Til You Can Breathe Again

When I think about sitting down to write something--because I want to sit down and write something--all the possibility of words tumble around in my brain and jam up my ability to write anything at all. Like the bedding I pulled from the dryer this afternoon, heated mattress cover rolled over and over sheets cocooned inside in a damp ball. No ideas are drying thoroughly around here.

Or something like that. That analogy doesn't land right, but it's better than the other one I shared among friends in July when I talked about my need to write and my inability to find the words lately--I'm creatively constipated. That's the blunt and simple truth.

So I have a moment to get a few words down, but I'm stuck on the laundry sitting around our home in piles that we're in our 3rd week of living out of. I have so much more I want to say about this season, but the laundry piles and the outdated goals sheet displayed in my room since May say it all.

I pick my daughter up from middle school and she asks if we can go to the store for a Reese's peanut butter cup. I kind of brush it off with "yeah, probably sometime." She expounds that's one of her teacher's favorite candybars and she wants to get it for her since the teacher's friend died by suicide. She has the idea to give her the candybar with a card and a drawing of her favorite animal.

My daughter disappears upstairs after doing her homework and returns a bit later, first to ask if I'd look up a picture of a sloth so she can draw something that looks less like a monkey. Then she comes back and slides the finished card on the counter in front of me asking me to read it and let her know what I think.

In it, she tells her teacher about a sermon she heard at church when we visited family in Idaho this summer. It was about suicide and the importance of letting people know how you feel and ask for help when you're feeling low. I had wondered what she'd thought about that sermon or what she took away from it, but didn't have a great opportunity to ask about it then forgot about it soon after. She tells her teacher she's sad for her and wishes that didn't happen and will be praying for her.

She asks me what I thought. I tell her it's so thoughtful and will likely mean a lot to her teacher.

A couple hours later, after going to the store for the candybar and dinner and reading, I tuck my daughter in for the night and her stomach's in knots and hurting because she's afraid of dying in her sleep. We've been working through different versions of this same fear for months.

I remind her of ways to ground herself in truth, because our minds play tricks on us, especially at night, and make fear seem like reality. I remind her she can get the essential oils she likes, she can think about the story in the book she's reading, she can do the things she knows how to do. She tries and sometimes it doesn't seem like enough and I encourage her to not give up, to keep doing what she knows how to do. (We also regularly have conversations to decide if and when to seek professional help for her.)

We pray. For the redirection of her thoughts on truth. For her teacher as she mourns the death of her friend. And I wonder if maybe her jumping to action for her teacher was a little bit about releasing her own fears and anxieties around death. She knows acting on truth is how we show our anxieties where to shove it.

Before school started in August, her anxiety was hitting a depth it hadn't ever reached before. Her panic at night made her hard to calm, her irrational fears couldn't be reasoned with. She had been working on writing a new book and asked if she could read it to me. I didn't even try to stop the tears as I heard her share her story describing her anxiety and how she coped with it. So wise, honest, and in touch for anyone let alone my 11-year-old.

She goes to her happy place in her mind, which is often school, and when that happy place is in jeopardy (like when she didn't know what to expect before school started at her new middles school), there's nothing left to fight off the anxiety. It grows and takes over like mold on bread. That's how she described it. I ache for her, my sweet baby girl. And I can relate.

Today, I asked someone what helps her destress--when life weighs on her, what helps her be able to breathe again.

I have been feeling my own need for a release. The tension building inside of me--from stress, including the good kind, and holding it all together. Without the proper outlets even the things that bring us great joy and give our lives great meaning can weigh us down and leave us at a loss for what to do with it all.

As the words jumbled in my mind this evening and I wanted to open Notes on my phone or post something on Instagram or open a notebook and put pen to paper, I realized I can breathe again when I write.

Not to over-simplify very complex things, but that's really what I want to say with all of these words. Suicide and anxiety and tackling work-life balance and change of seasons in life are big things. Most of them too big for me to tackle ever, let alone in a blog post. But this I can ask: What can you do in this moment to breathe more freely?

Take a walk to get fresh air, ask for a hug, vent to a friend over coffee?

This evening my daughter wrote her teacher a card that included a drawing of a sloth, baked some muffins, and read a book.

I posted the current state of my life in my Insta Stories, folded the laundry in my room (nevermind what's on the couches, I had to start somewhere), and sat here writing something. And I can breathe again.

Your answer may not solve everything, but it's a worthwhile place to start:

What will help you breathe today?


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Finding Calm after the Jump

Grateful for the adventure of the jump, anxiety-inducing and nerve-racking as it may be. When all's said and done, I wouldn't want to live life any other way.

Anxiety has been brewing inside me. Like the time I stood on a rock cliff staring down at the water more than 30 feet below. It's the classic choice of giving into anxiety and stumbling back down the path that got me here, or not letting anxiety boss me around and jumping anyway.

When the choice was about a literal jump off a literal cliff into literal water, nerves and fear twisted my stomach in knots and grew louder in my ears the longer I stood there. Still, standing there "forever" really turned out to be just a couple minutes, I could see the water I would be landing in, and after jumping it was all over in the matter of seconds.

My nerves settled just as soon as I jumped, and I was full of equal parts pride and relief to have made the jump. That settling of nerves is exactly what I've been waiting for over the last few years, and just haven't been able to find. Until recently.

It started when my middle kid went to kindergarten. This mom of three grew accustomed to chaos over my years of motherhood with my passionate kids. My oldest two now spent most the day in school, and the house became strangely quiet with just me and my toddler at home.

You'd think I'd love the break in the chaos, and I kind of did. Yet, along with the quiet came an unnerving sense of alarm. I'd spent years lost in my purpose at home and feeling like these needy babies would never not need me. Now here I was sobered by the reality of how quickly my 9- and 6-year-olds were moving on and that I hadn't spent enough, or any, time preparing for that.

I became more and more uncertain of my future; my identity and purpose were now all wrapped up in home and my kids. Fear twisted my stomach in knots and grew louder in my ears the longer I wondered what was next for me after almost a decade of being stay-at-home-mom.

Over the last couple months especially, as I looked into a specific job opportunity, I felt like I was standing at that cliff edge all over again. I felt a strong urge to jump, to quickly leap from my life as stay-at-home-mom into the working world. But jumping in life is often a much slower process. I worked on my resume, I did the interview, I even got the job. Each step my nerves only grew, fueling my urge to jump.

That's when I realized it was the landing, not the jumping, that held the release of nerves and anxiety I longed for. So as I went through the stages of the jump, I had only to wait in the uncertainty for the landing.

That's where I am now. I landed. I jumped from the life I've known for 10 years as a stay-at-home-mom into a new reality as a working mom. And I am full of equal parts pride and relief to have made this jump.

There is still plenty I'm figuring out for my future (like learning my new job). I'm also still in the middle of processing and reflecting on the decade of mothering young kids that I'm leaving behind. I'm sure that nostalgia will really hit me when our baby goes to kindergarten this fall.

But for now, I'm just so incredibly grateful. For the years of financial sacrifice that have granted me the privilege of being fulltime childcare provider for my kids through their little years. For countless precious memories that far outweigh all of the challenges. For incredible lessons and growth that only comes in thriving through hard things.

For the adventure of the jump, anxiety-inducing and nerve-racking as it may be.

When all's said and done, I wouldn't want to live life any other way.


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