Art and science of searching

Searching is strategic. It takes time to become efficient and master the search for information. Through practice, you can learn tips and tricks to find what you need.

When you're beginning your search, you'll need to learn the language of the scholars you hope to emulate. There are a few ways to get started:

  • Use the University Libraries’ LionSearch to search your topic across hundreds of the Libraries’ databases.
  • Use Google Scholar to search for your topic and the library’s resources to secure articles.
  • Once you find articles that seem relevant to your search, look to see what keywords or subject terms are included with the article. These words give insight into how scholars are talking about your topic and can help inform future searches.
  • Do more than one search. Your first search is not usually your best. As you learn more about your topic you will discover new searches that will yield better results.
  • If you're doing research with someone who has already published on the topic, search for articles they have previously written. This will help you understand the work that has already been done and find other scholars who are doing similar work. 
  • Use the bibliographies and references. Check the end of the paper for all the sources the authors have cited. These can provide more articles to look up and read and can inform future searches. 

As you explore and learn more about the research you’re conducting, you’ll have to read articles on your topic by other scholars. While you could read an academic article from start to finish, there are more strategic ways of reading to gain the most from it.

When you find an article you want to read, here are some ways to read it strategically:

  1. Carefully read the title and abstract first. This allows you to understand the main points of the article and what the author(s) want you to understand. These pieces provide the larger, overarching framework to the article.
  2. Read the introduction of the article. Here the author will explain the purpose and focus of this article, providing background information on their topic and reasons for this work.
  3. Skip to the end of the article and read the discussion/conclusion. By the end of the article, the author has moved into explaining the impact of the work and the conclusions we can draw from the article. This allows you to see where the article will end up.
  4. Go back to the beginning. Now, with this framework in place, you can go back to the beginning of the article and read the literature review and methodology section. The literature review allows you to see how the author is situating themselves in the scholarly conversation, and provides you with additional resources to explore on your topic. The methodology section showcases the author’s strategy and process for doing this research.

As you strategically read an article, you’ll also want to keep notes, review citations and the bibliography, and keep in mind the following questions:

  1. What is the author trying to say?
  2. What are the main points or arguments?
  3. How does this article add to the scholarly conversation on this topic?
  4. How does this article compliment, enhance, strengthen, or complicate my research questions?

As you become more familiar with research articles, you will see that every discipline has their own unique way of writing articles. Making adjustments to your writing in order to allow others in the discipline to most efficiently understand your work by using the patterns and conventions common in the discipline will be an ongoing adjustment.

Keep in mind that every discipline has their own way of writing articles. As you read more in your discipline, you’ll start to see patterns that will help you write your own article!

Once you have an idea you are interested in researching, the next step is to make sure it's a manageable area to research, especially given the time that you have. For example, if you want to solve world hunger, that topic is too large to research on your own. You'll need to focus your research in a way that will allow you to dig in, discover, and help create new knowledge.

As an emerging scholar, identifying research opportunities can be difficult. Fortunately, Penn State offers many opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research and creative endeavors. These opportunities often culminate with presentations at regional and national conferences, as well as publication in peer-reviewed academic journals. These searchable opportunities are broken down by campus, academic discipline, and faculty member on the opportunities page. For each listed research opportunity you will find a project description, the number of undergraduate researchers needed, minimum qualifications, and contact information for the supervising faculty member.

Are you interested in developing your own research project rather than joining an existing research effort? No problem! Throughout your coursework, you will almost certainly discover a topic that sparks your curiosity and prompts you to develop specific questions. Perhaps you have even been encouraged by a faculty member to take a class project and develop it into a research project. You have already begun the process of scientific inquiry. Take the next step by approaching your faculty mentor about supervising your research. Penn State supports these efforts through the Erickson Discovery Grant Program and Conference Travel Support Grant