Late last Spring, two different professors of mine assigned major research papers for their classes. One paper needed to be four to six pages long with four outside sources, and the other needed to be five to seven pages long with five outside sources. Both made up a big chunk of my final grade, and both were assigned around the same timeframe. On top of that, I still had my weekly responsibilities to take care of: meetings every Tuesday night for my fraternity, rehearsals to plan and lead for my a Cappella group (also on Tuesday nights), sectionals to go to, a job to work at, all my other classes to attend, an exercise routine to uphold, and date night with my boyfriend (which, admittedly, I did my best not to cancel. Ever). That’s pretty overwhelming, right? Which event is more important than another? Which paper should I work on first? How much time should I expect each paper to take? It’s hard enough to start working on ONE daunting project, let alone two, and the phrase “free time” wasn’t even in my vocabulary before they were assigned. Well, unfortunately these projects had to get done, and I am not the kind of person to pull an all-nighter, so I took a deep breath and began to plan:
Okay, Tuesday nights were off the table. I couldn’t work on the papers then. Frankly, I wanted all of Monday to be off the table, too, because I like spending time with my boyfriend. Date night was preserved. Wednesday and Thursday nights I worked from 7:00-9:00, but we were not usually that busy during those times, so that was four hours of potential project time right there. I also had a few free hours between my classes and my extracurriculars. That was a few more hours a week when I *could* work on my papers. Plus, my weekends were usually free, so hypothetically I had plenty of time to get these papers done.
After I had figured out when I was available to work on these papers, it was time to move onto the next question: where did I even start?? Well, falling back into Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the first step was to determine which project was more urgent and and/or more important. The paper for my Abnormal Psychology class was due a whole week before the paper for my Theories of Personality class. The required length for my Abnormal Psych paper was longer, too, which made it both slightly more important and slightly more urgent. Plus, it required that I use more sources than the one for Theories of Personality. Taking all of this information into consideration, I decided that my Abnormal Psych paper was the one I should focus on first.
Now that I knew which paper I wanted to start on first, the next step was to come up with a thesis. Personally, I don’t worry too much about detail for my initial thesis; I pick a main topic and three or four subtopics, then worry about the specifics after I’ve seen what research has already been conducted. Oftentimes I even find myself changing subtopics because of what information is available, so writing out a detailed statement about information I may not even have access to is counterproductive. Creating a thesis after I’ve already gathered all the necessary information, however, is much easier. In the meantime, having a topic and subtopics is really all you need before moving on to the next step of the paper: research.
From my experience with research papers, the best place to go for reliable articles is the UCM library databases. For both projects, I mainly used Psycinfo, as both were for psychology classes. For my Abnormal Psychology paper, the teacher told us that we needed an absolute minimum number of five articles, at least two of which had to be peer-reviewed. She also emphasized her belief in “the more the merrier,” so I ended up browsing and citing 11 articles, just to be safe. Be aware that even though you may find tons of articles relating to your topic, they may not all be as useful as you expect them to be. Also, as you narrow your topic down, articles that may have seemed helpful in the beginning may not be as detailed as you need them to be down the road when your thesis is more developed. After finding all of the necessary articles and information that I needed for my paper, it was time to actually start writing.
Before I start writing the first rough draft of any paper, I like to organize all the facts that I’ve gathered from my sources into their respective subtopics. For instance, in the case of my Abnormal Psych paper, my main topic was social anxiety. Any information I had learned about the symptoms of social anxiety went under the “symptoms” subtopic, and anything I learned about causes or treatment went under “causes” or “treatment,” respectively. I also try to organize these categories in a way that makes sense to me. I would not want to explain the treatments for social anxiety before I’ve introduced the definition, for example. After organizing the structure and determining which facts should go where, it is much easier to fill in the blanks with complete sentences and ideas.
Okay, so now I’ve explained how to start the writing process for one research paper. How does that help with juggling two at the same time? Well, you would simply repeat the steps used on your first paper with your second paper. I personally like to complete each step of each paper at the same time. For instance, after I chose a topic for my Abnormal Psych paper, I immediately chose a topic for my Theories of Personality paper. When I was done researching all the subtopics for my Abnormal paper, I switched back to the Theories paper and researched the subtopics for that one, too. Then, when I was done writing the Abnormal paper, I was immediately able to start writing the Theories paper without having to start back at the very beginning of the process. This may seem to cancel out the need for prioritizing one paper over the other, but keep in mind that I always completed the steps for the Abnormal Psych paper before moving on to the other one.
If you have thought through all of these steps and still find yourself waiting until the last minute to finish a major research assignment, here are a few tips that might get you motivated:
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