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:


also see: