One common factor that we have noted in the resumes of students admitted to the Ivy Leagues and other top colleges is the prevalence of research work while still in high school.
In this article, we explain how and why exposure to research helps students and the key steps in planning and writing high-quality research papers. There are three main reasons, as to why research papers help students stand out. A high-quality research paper shows that you have the energy and the initiative to go beyond what is taught in the class and apply it to real-life problems.
It shows that your interest in the subject extends beyond the questions provided at the end of the chapter. Secondly, you learn the discipline of not rushing intuitively to the likely answer, instead of using a deliberate process in which you are guided by the data. Lastly, in working with a skilled professor or mentor you learn how to organise your thoughts better, ask the right questions and try to answer those questions in the best way possible subject to the constraints. A good work product provides an insight into your mind, thought process and way of working.
The following steps apply to high school students that want to learn more and differentiate themselves by conducting research and documenting it with a research paper.
DECIDE YOUR SUBJECT
The first question a student needs to answer is, “What is your favourite subject ?”. Do you like reading books and news related to that subject?
If for example, your favourite subject is economics, do you like to read the business newspaper, about the budget or interest rate changes? Are you able to relate what you have read in your textbooks with what you observe in the newspaper?
If your favourite subject is Physics, do you like to participate in science fairs or Olympiads in your school or city? Do you enjoy reading books by eminent Physicists? Do you like making science projects or designing models?
FIND THE RIGHT MENTOR
Once you know your subject, the next step is to find a strong mentor with experience in that field. You can find good mentors from an industry background or academia. For conducting research, it is advisable to have a mentor from academia as they are used to thinking broadly and spending time on framing the right question. Mentors with an industry background are generally better if you are trying to learn a specific activity or skill pertaining to their area.
Literature Review – Examine existing research papers in your subject
A crucial step in the research is to evaluate existing materials and recent developments in your subject. You need to know; a) the important topics that researchers are working on and b) what tools, statistical methods and data collection techniques are used. This is where a good mentor can share their work and help you understand the recent developments in that field.
UNDERSTAND YOUR CONSTRAINTS
Before you embark on a project, you need to understand what you can and cannot do. The time and resources available to, and the expectations from, a doctoral student is different, than those from an undergraduate student.
It is important to understand: i) the available time frame and ii) the available resources before you launch. For example, if you have access to a laboratory where you can test samples or conduct experiments, your data collection will be markedly different from someone who is conducting similar research based on a literature review. Understanding the constraints also helps the student decide whether to pursue Primary or Secondary Research.
CHOOSE YOUR TOPIC
By now you should be ready to choose your topic. The topic can be based on: a) recent events or research, b) your vision or imagination or c) literature review. You should have an idea of your constraints (available time and resources) available to you in your pursuit. At this stage, you should discuss your research plan with your mentor and finalise the topic.
FRAME THE RIGHT ‘QUESTION’
The number 42 is, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” calculated by an enormous supercomputer named Deep Thought over 7.5 million years. Unfortunately, no one knows what the question is. Thus, to calculate the Ultimate Question, a special computer the size of a small planet was built from organic components and named “Earth”.
In real life, not asking the right question does not always lead to a dramatic answer like 42. However, it always leads to a significant waste of time and effort. Therefore, its important to take time and carefully frame your question or hypothesis.
ANSWER THE ‘QUESTION’
With a well-designed framework and research plan in place, you are finally ready for the races. You can start collecting the data and use it to answer your question(s). Despite all the planning and effort, you will still find new issues and problems. You may be able to overcome some of these yourselves and should consult with your mentor on the ones you find insurmountable.
A high-quality research paper provides an insight into your thought process and work ethic. The experience of learning your favourite subject beyond the textbooks while working with an accomplished mentor is an enriching and valuable life lesson.
The writer is the Chief Executive and Co-founder of Scholarly.