Academic papers are a big part of people’s college experience. Writing them can be fun and incredibly rewarding but how do you go about them? Rather than battle with a paper learn to work with it and be proud of your work.
This article explains from what I did and my experience lecturing on how to approach an academic paper.
- Academic Paper Writing
- Initial Proposal
- Detailed proposal
- Structure of your paper
- My advice to you
- Conclusion to this article
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Academic Paper Writing
I often get asked “is this a good enough project?” The short answer is that the only person who can really answer that is you! So lets see what goes into a project.
Doing an academic project is about structure, reading and then a lot more reading. So lets break down your approach.
A project has a structure that is quite set. Preparing a research paper / doing a project is an academic skill you will learn. Mostly through experimentation do you learn it.
Before you get your degree, you’re an undergraduate. After your degree, you’re a post graduate.
I first went to college from 1996 to 1999 and got my certificate and diploma (now ordinary degree). Returning to college in 2010 as a mature student I finished the final year of my honours degree. I completed my Masters degree in 2013.
Trust no one. Question everything.
The first skill is to learn to question everything.
- Who wrote this?
- Why did they write this?
- Are they leading me down the garden path?
- Is this information biased?
This is the primary reason Wikipedia is so banned / frowned upon from academic sources, as anyone can write one and there is no way to prove the information supplied is actually valid.
So how do you prove a statement is valid? Facts. Indisputable facts. This is why academic papers and books are so useful. In them, they make statements and those statements are backed up by proof. So you could go do what they did and would get the same result. Facts.
So when you do a project, you’re demonstrating your skill in being able to make a statement and then prove it’s real. Now if you have to prove every sentence in your paper is real, you very quickly realise that that is a lot of demonstrating. This is why academic papers tend to be about 5 pages long. They are a mountain of work!
When you get a book, is it factual? Fiction novels aren’t but it is a book. So what you want from a book are facts. Academic books tend to be factual and from the style of writing in them you can tell these books. However, question them. This is the skill you’re learning.
If you get a manual / paper from a company, how do you know they’re not biased in favour of their own products. Sentences like “this is the best way to do this” immediately should ring alarm bells.
So everything I’m writing here, you should take as biased. It is. Biased with my experience and I’m sure there’s better ways of doing this, teaching this, but let’s treat this as a useful starting point in your learning journey.
There are variations on a theme available from reputable sources
So if your paranoia has kicked in, good. It will serve you well.
What you’re learning is the skill of preparing an academic paper. Whether it’s a degree, masters or doctorate, you’re demonstrating skills by doing a project / paper.
Where does the project come from?
It comes from a need. Usually industry will have a question.
- Should I use CPUs or GPUs to process my output?
- What cover should I put on my product?
- Which technology is better?
They want facts as it will give them a better chance to make profit. However to get facts they have to pay money. Basically your salary / the money for the person to live while they gather the facts.
Industry and academia work very well hand in hand in this area. Industry has money, academia has bright people. So industry comes to academia with a project and says… figure this out. What will it cost? Business happens! Especially in America this can cover the cost of the tuition fees which are far higher than Irish costs.
Now for most university students, you don’t have an industry question you’re asked to create one or select one that project supervisors set up. This question is a “proposal”.
It should be “industry proposal to academia to prove / disprove something”. Now if you don’t have one of these you need to pick something that will show off your skills / help you get a job in the future.
Your question can be about anything, but trust me when I say, pick a question that really interests you in an area you want your career to go.
We’ll come back to your proposal a little later on.
The hardest part – Facts
So before we even choose a project to work on we need to think about facts. How are we going to get facts? For some questions it’s next to impossible to get facts… is there a God? yet somehow people can do academic papers on them. This is possible through something called research. Usually primary and secondary research.
Here are some others backing this up
So in short you’ve two ways of getting facts.
- Method 1: Collect some data. Go do experiments. This is primary research. The hard slog. This is referred to as expensive, why… because it takes time. Primary research can be done by timing results, test outputs or surveys. Hard repeatable fact gathering.
- Method 2: It’s easier to read a book than it is to go out and survey 1000 people. This is secondary research. If someone else has surveyed the 1000 people the results are written down for you. You’ve got to make sure those facts are not biased. If secondary research doesn’t exist, then you have to do primary research.
Primary research can also go out of date. As equipment, methods and the world moves on, what was a fact at one point in time may no longer be true today.
Some facts are timeless but often new theories, technology and approaches change the understanding of facts.
This can allow for papers to be reinvestigated. It all boils down to where people spend their time.
Choosing a question
The first thing is a proposal. You can choose to select a question posed by your supervisor or come up with your own question. What needs to happen with the question is to make it realistically fit within a time frame.
You could ask the question “is there a better way of structuring a cpu?” Given that Intel have made a multi-billion dollar industry from this question, it’s probably too broad to fit into the time scale of producing a paper in an academic year or even a semester.
A question of “does the save button in Microsoft Word look better as a blue button or a red button”, is probably too narrow in focus.
Your course is trying to give you a grounding in a subject area.
Some examples from real life
Choosing a research type
Your project supervisor is here to help you make sure your scope is “reasonable” for the time you have available.
You’re doing the driving on this. Remember you’re the one who has to do the research. So you’re going to be putting the time in.
- If you’re depending on getting your facts from secondary research, you’re going to have to have a lot of material available for you to compare.
- If you’re doing primary research you’re going to have to have a plan to be able to gather that data.
Pros and cons of the research types
Often people rely on surveys and they’re killer to get people to answer. So here are your pros and cons and this needs to be planned out for your proposal.
- If you choose secondary research, there needs to be tons of info on the area and you need to be ready to read a lot of material. Being a slow reader can make this a tough route, not impossible just tougher.
- Choosing primary research as a route means you have one of two choices:
- Surveys. These are great at gathering interesting data, but you’re going to have to get your questions spot on and getting people to actually answer the surveys is tough going. People suggest they’ll help but everyone gets busy and are they going to be available to answer your questions.
- Experiment. This tends to put most of the power in your hands as you can time, test, etc, without having to depend on anyone else. A sample computer program or something you can test is often the easiest route for engineers (software or otherwise) to get facts. However this usually means you need to be competent in a practical skill and it will be heavily scrutinised during your review (more on this later on).
You can of course do more than one of these approaches in the same paper but time, space and effort should be a consideration.
I’m not advocating any method over the other. They’re all hard work. They all have pros and cons. Pick one you’re going to prefer as it’s going to take a lot of your time.
Considering your choice
At the end of this process you will have a question. The problem is that question may have been asked and answered before. So as you research, your question can change.
This is the powerful part of your learning and becoming more of an expert in the area. Your supervisor will have done a ton of research in related areas before so can save you time and give you direction on interesting areas of research.
Remember that the question you chose can go on to be a multi-billion dollar business if you stumble on a really good question, that addresses a real world need.
Because you’re going to be spending literally hundreds of hours of your life reading material, you need to ensure this is something of interest.
Seriously… you need to be interested in the area or you’re going to go insane. This is going to make you not the like area very much by the end so make sure before you start you actually like it. It’ll help so much.
So you have your question, now comes your first bout of reading. Into google type your question and read every single link on the first 5 pages of Google. This is going to give you some background. Allow what you read to inspire more questions on the area.
Try put “academic” in the title or “paper” to see can you get academic papers on the area. Don’t worry if you read them and they don’t seem to make sense. Go to the bottom of the paper and find out the books / references the researchers used. This will give you good reliable sources to help speed you on your research way.
This is time consuming but basically you’re educating yourself on the area. You’re using the material to expand your mind and learn about the area.
If your memory is awful, pick out interesting bits and drop them into notepad along with the URL of where you got the nugget.
Start building up a library of useful / relatable resources. From the outset you’ll find some information resources more useful than others.
Let your paranoia kick in. Who wrote it and why? If company or news agency articles be careful… really careful, they have bias.
How do they prove their statements? Even if biased it’s useful to include the resources for confirming / refuting their claims later on.
I personally use Notepad++ for all my references, as it allows me store a URL and some thoughts on the content to save me rereading an article.
Some people use Microsoft OneNote. Others use bookmarks in their browsers. There is no right and wrong method, it’s just whatever helps you.
Now that you have some research on the area you actually start to realise how much / little material you have to work with.
You may need to refine your questions if you realise the area you chose is too broad. You may refine it again if there is not enough information available. This does require discussion with your supervisor and hopefully they’ll appreciate the work you’ve put in. They may also be able to provide you with more relevant literature if you haven’t already discovered it.
Structure of your paper
At this stage we’re now into constructing your paper and the vast amount of reading begins.
Your paper should have the following structure
- Title page
- Introduction / Abstract
- Table of Contents
- Background Research
- Methodology / Experiment
This has been done time immemorial. Here is a good write up of it http://gmitweb.gmit.ie/pdunne/research/reportwriteup.pdf
My advice to you
Using secondary research
If you choose secondary research, your results will go into your methodology not your background research.
Table of Contents
For the table of contents, you can make this so easy on yourself. Also with the subsection of figures and tables, this is so useful. Watch this video Word_Document_Formatting Learn to use this properly and it’ll save you hours and hours. James Clark, King’s College London… find him and watch closely.
For the background, every single sentence you put in there must be backed up by fact. You must include in your references everywhere you got your statements of fact. Read the sentence in there and ask, where is that a fact from. Be really hard on yourself. You have to find someone who said it. It has to have come from somewhere and “you saying it”, doesn’t count. This is so hard to do. It’s vital to do.
Learn how to use Harvard notation properly. When you’re creating your reference in Notepad++ or whatever tool you use… asap start writing them in proper Harvard notation.
Using Wikipedia academically
There is often a push to not use Wikipedia or online resources. Instead of fighting against them, work with them. Go to the bottom of the Wiki article and find all the books and articles that are mentioned. Find those books and where the info came from and use that as your reference instead.
The same goes for online articles, try see at the bottom / info of the document if there is an offline version of the document which you could reference instead.
Conclusion to this article
Well I hope the above helps. Question all of it and discuss with your project supervisor.
I wish you the very best of luck with your papers and your research. No one can do the reading for you, so manage your time. It’s pure grind.
Remember that the paper you produce usually has to be bound. You are producing something you will be able to show the world for the rest of your life. Make it worthwhile.