As a graduate student, I spent hours on the Internet looking for tips to try to improve my writing skills and make my educational administration + leadership research papers more persuasive. But if I’m being honest? A lot of the tips I read online were contradictory and confusing. Worse still, I never knew if I was completely missing the point with my own essays. Had I included enough sources? Made valid arguments? Provided enough detail? I felt like I was making it up as I went.
Sound familiar? If you need to write your research paper but you feel like you don’t know where to start, then you’re in the right place! These are some ideas that helped me - and I think they will help you, too.
In this guide, I will walk you through some tips on getting started, selecting an essay topic that gets you feeling motivated, writing a strong research question, searching for references, and writing, proofreading, and formatting your paper. Along the way, I will also provide specific examples, links to some helpful resources, and a free printable research essentials checklist so that you can write your next paper with confidence.
Are you ready to get started? Keep on reading friend, ‘cause I’ve got your research paper-writing basics (and more) covered!
The good news is, you really don’t need much to get started on your research paper - access to a library, a computer, and your inquisitive mind are the essentials. However, you’ll probably need some of these items in your research toolkit at some stage in the writing process, so let’s just cover these now:
A notepad and a pen (highly recommended for creating your research paper plan!)
A computer or laptop (or access to a computer)
Research articles or books that you think you may use for your research project (it's okay if you don't have these yet!)
Sticky notes, highlighters, or different coloured pens for planning (optional)
A printer (optional)
Snacks and water (the world is better with snacks and you gotta stay hydrated!)
When it comes to beginning your research paper, half the battle is just starting. We often procrastinate writing because we don’t have a direction or are avoiding it because of how much work we think writing our papers will be. Of course, writing a paper does require some work, but most of the time, I’m always surprised how fast the process went once I actually started.
Do this: Decide now not to hate writing your research paper.
If you’ve only written terrible papers in the past, don’t worry, this is your chance to approach them differently. Never written one before? Believe you can write a great research paper and that you can learn how, if you’re willing to put in some effort. You got this!
The next step is to set up a workspace for yourself. This might be at home on your couch, in a coffee shop, or in a library, but wherever you decide to set up, just try to find a place where you won’t be distracted. For me, that place is the quiet section of my school’s library (because let’s be real, the temptation to Netflix binge is way too strong at home). Plus, there’s something about seeing other students focused on their work that helps me feel more motivated to get to work myself.
Do this: Find a quiet workspace where you won’t be distracted.
Another consideration is that you also want to choose a workspace with an Internet connection. Wi-fi is must to be able to access your library’s database, but don’t let social media distract you (more tips on how to avoid procrastination below!). Give yourself the opportunity to do well on your project, and you’ll be surprised at how well you do.
Selecting a Topic You Feel Excited + Inspired About
Sometimes, just getting invested in the topic you want to write about is enough to motivate you to work hard on your research paper. To find a topic that you feel excited and inspired about, pull out your notepad and write the following question at the top of the page:
What is one aspect of the field of educational administration + leadership that I’m curious about?
Do this: Write down 3-5 possible topics that are specific and which can realistically be approached in the 3,000 - 6,000 words you may have to complete your research paper. What topics interest you? What topics haven’t been explored enough in the research articles you may have already read?
Tip: A good way to find out whether you’ve been specific enough about your topic is to do a quick library search. For example, a search for “Educational administration” gave me 137,908 search results in my university library database. However, a search for “Educational Administration” AND “Positivism” gave me 97 search results. It’s important to be as specific as possible. If you get 50,000 search results, you probably need to narrow your focus, but if you get between 50-250 search results, you’ve likely chosen a topic that has some key research that you can review that directly relates to your research interests.
Remember: There are many interesting topics to write about in the field of educational administration and research, and don’t worry. You have lots of time to write about them. For now, just choose one topic to practice honing your research paper-writing skills. You’ll be writing well-researched papers in no time.
In preparing to write this post, I went back through the stacks of research articles I’ve written over the years and pulled out a few examples to demonstrate the kinds of topics I wrote about:
A Uses and Gratifications Perspective on Administrators’ Use of Twitter to Improve Research and Practice within the Field of Educational Administration and Leadership
The All-Administrative University: Exploring the Disconnect between Academic Administrative Theory and Practice
The Adminibrary Project: An Interventionist Arts-Based Approach to Educational Administration and Leadership
So, what if you don’t get to choose your own topic!?
If you don’t get to choose your own topic because your instructor assigned it to you, try one of these ideas:
Suggest your own topic! Some instructors offer a list of suggested topics, especially in introductory courses, but they are often open to your ideas as well. Write out a strong research question for the topic you’d like to write about (you may need to adjust it so that it aligns with the theme of the course), and submit it to your professor as early as possible so that they can review it and approve your idea well in advance of the deadline.
Use a variation on a topic. Using one of the pre-determined topics, go one step further and investigate one specific aspect of the topic. For example, if the assigned topic is to write about positivism in the field of educational administration and leadership, you could write about the history of positivism and how it currently affects the field today, or even different modern-day thinking on positivism. As always, make sure you check with your professor to approve your idea.
Add your own perspective on an assigned topic. There’s always room for you to add your own perspective on a topic, even if it’s been handed to you by your professor. What interesting research articles have you found in your quick library search that could magnify a certain issue that hasn’t been looked at in-depth enough yet?
You might feel like you need to have all your references ready in order to get started writing your research paper, but you can get started with just an idea (even a vague idea) of what you want to write about. Selecting your research topic might be the hardest step for you - it may even be the reason you may be procrastinating on your work. Not having a clear idea of what I’m actually writing about is the #1 reason I put off my own work!
Topics in the field of educational administration and leadership can vary. There is no “one topic” that is right or wrong to investigate. As a researcher, your job is to get curious about many different topics and to investigate them by seeking out sources that may or may not agree with you. What would you like to know more about? In some cases, your research topic may be given to you by your instructor, or you may be able to choose your own. Either way, there is room for creativity and to look at your topic from your own unique perspective.
Formulating a Clear + Concise Research Question
The next step is to think about your research question before you begin collecting resource materials. The reason for this is because searching for peer-reviewed articles and books is much easier to do when you have a specific idea of what research question you are trying to answer (though if you already have some resources in mind, keep them on hand). It may be tempting to dive in to the library and start collecting all kinds of research articles, BUT this process will be so much easier if you take a moment to craft a clear and concise research question.
Your research question is important because it helps to focus your research and give you a clear goal to work toward. For example, if your research question is whether Twitter has a positive effect on educational administrators’ professional learning, then that gives you a lot of ideas to use when it comes to selecting your research articles, and a specific question to try to answer in your essay.
Do this: On a piece of paper, write down your topic at the top of the page and then list potential research questions underneath. Consider what specifically you want to know about your chosen topic. If you chose to write a research paper on the topic of educational administration preparation programs, for example, then your question might be, “what are the uses of technology on administrator preparation programs?”. You may even choose to be more specific, for example, “what are the uses of technology in administrator preparation programs in Canadian universities?”.
Tip: Keep this piece of paper as your research plan for the rest of the writing process. It will be useful for sketching out an outline to your paper.
Your research question is your roadmap going forward, making it easier to know exactly what sources you might look for in your university library. The next step is to search for references.
Searching for References
Am I the only one that thinks collecting research articles is the most fun a person can have writing a research paper? There’s nothing better than finding a perfect article that argues your points exactly and backs up your research question. But knowing where to look for research articles seems to be one of the most challenging things about writing your research paper. The good news is, now that you have your research question, collecting research articles is going to be so much easier. There are basically three steps you’re going to take to find research articles:
Login to your university library’s website and search keywords from your research question (e.g. “Educational Administration” AND “technology”)
Filter your results so that you only view peer-reviewed references
Further filter your results to find the most recent research on your topic (I like to search primarily for articles published within the past ten years)
Idea: You might want to consider storing your research articles on a reference database such as Mendeley. Over time, you can build up a helpful resource library that will make future research projects a breeze!
Writing Your Research Paper
The first step of writing a research paper is getting set up in a location where you won’t be too distracted. Plan to write for intervals of time, such as 1 or 1.5-hour periods of time. Apps like Forest can be helpful for setting an intention for the amount of time you want to work for, and it will keep you from browsing Facebook and Instagram and losing valuable time.
Some important things to keep in mind as you write your research paper:
Research papers may seem overwhelming or daunting but they are totally manageable and can even be fun to write (ignore the haters - there’s nothing better than finding that one research article that totally backs up your claims and proves your point!).
Writing a research paper is not a linear process. Be open to new ideas and don’t be afraid to change your direction or your research question. Your research can take you in unexpected directions - it doesn’t mean you’re starting all over again, it means you’re learning, and that’s a good thing!
Don’t plagiarize. Plagiarism not only includes copying other people’s work and claiming it as your own, but using work you’ve previously submitted for a class and re-using it for a new project.
Don’t procrastinate. Decide to write this paper and put yourself in an environment where you’re more likely to do some work. You may be able to work fine on your couch, but if you’re like most of us (and would rather Netflix-binge than do homework), you need to pick yourself up and go to the library instead.
Proofreading Your Paper
It’s important to proofread your paper after you have finished your first draft. If possible, try to at least sleep on it and look at it again the next day. But if you’re rushing to finish this paper last minute, take a short break and step away from what you’ve written.
The trick to proofreading your paper is to read it out loud to yourself. If you’re in the library, try to read it quietly to yourself or try mouthing the words. There is something about reading your paper out loud that allows you to catch all kinds of awkward sentence phrases and grammar mistakes, like verb agreement. Also, set aside some time to create your reference list (it’s easiest to create it as you go, but if you save it for the end, make sure you give yourself some time to check your APA citations. The most common mistake students make is in their APA formatting and reference list, but these are really the easiest marks you can get. It just requires some attention to detail.
Consult the following APA guide on how to format your paper and citations. Alternatively, your university will likely have their own guide that they publish on their library’s website.
You’ve turned in your paper and now you’re done with it forever, right? Well, consider this: you’ve spent all this time and energy writing your research paper, so why not do something else with it? You' probably had some great ideas in your paper, and those are worth sharing with others in this field. So why not try out one or a few of the ideas below, and do something more with your paper?
Create a research poster out of your paper and present it at your school’s next research day.
Develop a research article using the feedback you receive on your research paper and submit it to a student conference such as the Canadian Journal for New Scholars in Education.
Tweet your ideas using the hashtag #edadmin or share on other social media accounts.
Pitch a blog post or online article on your topic and submit it to a student newspaper or magazine.
Do you have your own tips for writing an education research paper? Let me know in the comments below!