Monday, September 16, 2013



This topic does not tell you how to use the library or conduct your experiments. What it does cover are ways you can make the most of your research time, along with some of the most common time wasters.

What are the best resources for beginning research in your area of interest? Before you head for the library’s on-line catalog, ask around the department. 

Grad students in your field who've been around longer know the general publications you’ll need to review before you get started. Your professors will make recommendations, and you can look at reading lists from past exams and from other students. Many times students will let you copy their articles and borrow their books, saving you library time and copying fees. These sources will be a solid first step in beginning research.

Research Time –Savers
Here are strategies for making the most of your research time.

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  • Keeping a research notebook
  • Effective library searching
  • Saving key words
  • Dividing work into stages
  • Speed-reading
  • Annotating your sources
  • Archiving files
  • Finding a research buddy

Keeping a Research Notebook: Sciences students have probably already received this advice from their professors. For them, a research notebook contains dated material on experiments, including the purpose of the experiment; information on lab equipment used; data collected; calculations; lab procedures; results; and ideas for modified or future experiments. But a research notebook can be a valuable tool for students in the sciences and the arts.

Your notebook should also be used for jotting down flashes of inspiration. In reading over a long period of time, you will begin to see connections between ideas, intersections of topics in widely diverse publications. The notes you take may be the germ of an independent research idea. Write down the connections you make during your reading, and cite the sources that inspired them. Later you will see that you've been building an idea for independent research out of your reading. And remember to read your notebook from time to time.

Effective Library Searching: You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Do a literature search at the library to be sure your brilliant idea is “original” and “significant.” The quickest library shortcut is to look at a review article on all the literature published in your research area during the past year. After digging here comes effective writing part that comes in mind. 

All disciplines have (at least) one annual publication like this-basically an annotated bibliography of everything that’s been published in the field. This is “one-stop shopping.” Someone else has already gone to the trouble to read the publications and evaluate their quality. You've got the easy job-writing down references of well-reviewed articles and books related to your area of interest.

This search does not need to be exhaustive, at least not in the beginning. Later you may want to go backward in time, but at the start keep your search limited by date and close to the present. Get an idea of the ongoing scholarly discussion of your topic and the current or speculated direction of the research. Knowing the scholarly “conversation” will tell you almost everything you need to begin developing your own ideas.

Keyword Saving: It’s important to locate and record references. It’s equally important to note how you found your sources. If you’re using the library’s on-line catalog, write down the key words used in your search. The same goes for using Dissertation Abstracts or on-line periodical searches. If you only look up three articles out of the six you found in a search, you may want to look at the other three articles down the road. Then you will need to know how you found the six articles in the first place.

Dividing Your Work into Stages: After a successful trip to the library, you may come home with 10 books and 20 articles on your topic. Now you've got to read them! The stack itself is intimidating, and just looking at it can overwhelm even the most diligent student. Remember your grad school mantra: break it down.

 Schedule the reading in stages, including time for transferring notes and references to your computer. Sometimes I even separate my books into stacks for each day so the reading looks more manageable. Learning to do this now will contribute to a shorter time to degree when you start working on your thesis/dissertation in earnest. Know what you want to accomplish in your reading and have a clear path to get there.

When you’re scheduling your work, it can be very tempting to do the no-brainer work first and then move on to the creative or analytical parts. I like to check my e-mail before I get started on my work, but I limit my time on the Internet to 1 hour, regardless of how much mail I've got coming in. Don’t wait too long to do your thinking. It’s much easier to think when you first sit down to work and then do administrative work after a few hours. Reward yourself with grunt work after you've done the difficult writing or thinking.

Speed-Reading: If you’re reading every word of an article or book, you’re wasting valuable time and falling behind the progress of other students. No one reads everything. It’s important when you’re conducting research to have some idea of what you’re looking for before you find it. If you’re researching a topic in the library and find references from several journals, start out with the articles from leading journals. And don’t race to the copying machine with articles in hand. Before you spend your money, take a few minutes to review the articles.

First read the abstract or the intro paragraphs to see how an idea is presented. Does it cover what you’re looking for? Many time the title will be misleading. Is the article well written? By reading the last paragraph you can see if the main idea holds together. And, most important of all, check the bibliography. You’ll begin to see that certain articles and books are cited over and over again. In cases where you’re pressed for time, look at the bibliography first.    
Annotating Your Sources: As you read through articles and books, make notes on how useful each source was. Type up all of the sources you've read and include an informal “review “of the article or book. Write down whether a source was helpful or useless, what chapters or pages were relevant, and what publication you might want to look at again at a later stage. If you don’t annotate your sources, you’ll end up rereading them (and kicking yourself when you realize it).

Archiving Files: If you’re a student in computer science, you already know how important it is to archive files. Keeping track of your files saves time so you don’t repeat your work. Create sub directories for different projects or aspects of a single research project, and periodically clean out your files. Keep a hard copy of the most important documents in your computer and file them in clearly labeled file folders. Save outdated but valuable work such as class papers, older lab reports, and conference papers onto floppy disks. Label the disks and print out a file list for each one. You may want to add annotations to the files in case the file names seem cryptic to you later.

Finding a Research Buddy: Losing your motivation? Remote control for the TV leaping into your hands seemingly of its own free will? You need a research buddy. Your research buddy doesn't have to be in your specific area, or even at the same school. My research buddy lives close by but attends another university, and we get together informally just to talk about our ideas and research. 

Through you can make friends on-line, your buddy should be someone you can get together with face-to-face. Your ideas sometimes even collaborate with you on projects. He or she should not be in direct competition with you. If necessary, schedule regular times and places to meet so you don’t lose touch with one another during stressful work periods. You’ll need your buddy most when you have the heaviest workload. He or she can keep you sharp, motivated, involved, and on your academic toes.

Research-Time Wasters

Three of the biggest time wasters are of the electronic variety …

  • E-mail
  • Computer games
  • Phone/TV
  • Overscheduling yourself
  • Underestimating the time to accomplish tasks
E-mail: Technically, you’re doing research, right? Right now the perfect citation or grant opportunity is sitting our there waiting for you in cyberspace. Networking on e-mail, as I said before, is one of the best options for research opportunities and information gathering.

Unfortunately, e-mail can also be the biggest time waster of a grad student’s career. The first three months after I discovered the Net, I spent as much as 4 hours a day surfing, subscribing,  fingering, gophering, and MOOing. I realized, almost too late, that my work was falling behind even as I was making friends all over the globe. It had to stop. I disciplined myself instead to do all of my research and daily work first, and to reward myself with the Net when I was done. It worked, and I've used this method ever since.

Computer Games: I've read that some companies have systematically removed “Doom” from their networks because it brought worker productivity to a virtual halt; I know people who have deleted computer games from their home PCs because they couldn't get any work done. You will be spending much of your time in front of the computer screen, an open invitation to dial-up on your modem line or double click on solitaire for a quick game.

 But if you’re not really in the mood to work anyway, playing one computer game invariably leads to another. Computer games are exhausting if you play them for very long, and suddenly all of your creative energy is used up. My suggestion here is the same as my advice about the Net: use games as your reward for a job well done.

Phone/TV: I don’t use the phone much anymore since I got on-line, but (unfortunately) not all of my friends and family have e-mail accounts! You will get calls when you’re in the middle of thinking through a difficult problem. If you believe you can get back to your train of thought after talking to your friend about her latest boyfriend, you’re wrong. By the time you get back to the problem, whatever flashes of inspiration you had will be gone.

Especially when you’re not really doing anything-not writing, not thinking. But even a couple of hours a day of interruptions can affect your productivity. You need large chunks of time just for thinking. The TV is worse because you can watch it at your convenience. Only use TV for limited brain breaks. I turn the set off and get back to work.

Over Scheduling Yourself: Can’t say no? Too many opportunities- not enough time? With more recognition and achievement comes more opportunity, but like anything else, you have to prioritize your time. I got involved in founding our department’s graduate student association, and with a few other students devoted almost a month’s time exclusively to setting it up. While I don’t regret the time I spent on this project-the results were very rewarding-I said “no” to related association projects later on.

Underestimating the Time to Accomplish Tasks: This goes under the subheading of “Know Thyself” Don’t make the common mistake of underestimating how long it will take to finish a project. Once you start missing your deadlines, it is easy to degenerate into indecision, your deadlines, it is easy to degenerate into indecision, procrastination, and eventual crisis. Try to give yourself good lead time for new projects. If you complete tasks before your scheduled deadlines, so much the better!

Grant Proposals

You may have to prepare grant proposals as part of your graduate education. One of the most valuable skills you can have, whether you stay in academe or go into industry, is the ability to convince others that your ideas are worth funding. If you pursue an academic career, grant writing will take up a large portion of your time. Grants decide your academic future-tenure, post-docs, opportunities to publish and or travel, and better job offers.
If you’re first-time grant writer, you should keep a couple of things in mind. First, don’t reach for the moon with your first proposal. The best way to get grants as a novice is to start small-find “little” grants, local granting agencies, or internal grants from your university. Granting agencies tend to award money to people who already have a track record of getting grants. Receiving a grant of $1,000 means that you’ll most likely get more money from your next proposal. Start locally, start small, but start now!

First Step: Your University and Department:
How do you find out about grant opportunities? Every university has a department called something like the “Research Office” or “Grants and Research Office.” These are staffed by people devoted to poring over all the grant sources out there and finding opportunities suitable for their academic researchers. 

Most agencies that offer grant send universities either Requests for Applications (RFAs) or Requests for proposals (RFPs). These include all the research office publishes a regular listing of grant opportunities. Many times the office will also list well as outside funding opportunities. Find out if your university’s research office has a computerized database that lists opportunities, award amounts, and guidelines.

The members of your department-faculty, staff, even other grad students- are great sources of information about grant source and opportunities. Many faculty members are working with grant money on current projects, and they will be happy to let you see their proposals. Other grad students are receiving outside funding through individual grants and may be willing to share their experiences and expertise. The department staff may also keep a record of currently funded projects in the department and a list of grant opportunities. Your own department is a gold mine of information and resources, and poking around will save you valuable search time on your own.

Finding GRANT Sources:
You also want to be aware of publications and institutions that list grant opportunities in your field. Outside grants fall into two broad categories: government and foundation grants. You can find our about government grants by checking the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance (CFDA). This incredibly large and rather cryptic publication offers an overview of funding opportunities, including those for graduate education and fellowships.

For non government grants, look at the latest copy of Foundation Grants to Individuals in the reference section of the library. Published by The Foundation Center, this guide includes financial data on foundations and companies that make grants-assets, expenditures, number, and amount of grants awarded-as well as information on grant programs and deadlines.

Many students consult the “Big Book of Grants” otherwise known as the Directory of Research Grants, published by Oryx Press. This directory is broken down into separate volumes by field. It is updated yearly, and the newest one will be on the reference shelf. Older editions can usually be checked out. I recommend that you take one of these home and keep it on your bookshelf for awhile.

The Grants Register published a list of funded grants from government and private sources at or above the graduate level. This is a great source for graduate students. It lists grant money available in the form of scholarship and fellowships, travel grants, competition prizes, and research grants.
If you think your research may be of interest to industry or corporate sponsors, take a look at Dorin Schumacher’s Get Funded! Published in 1992 by Sage Publication. Particularly for students whose research involves computers or electronic media, corporations may be willing to fund projects and/or donate equipment. Though they don’t include a great deal of information on grants available to graduate students, other guides you might consult are the Annual Register of Grant Support: A Directory of Funding Sources and the Foundation Directory

Organizations: Two well-known organizations keep up-to-date information on grant opportunities. The first is The Foundation Center, with offices all over the country. The Foundation Center, though geared in large part to offering services to organizations such as private foundations and universities, also offers seminars for individuals on grant proposals. Their offices maintain extensive libraries of information about foundations, including annual reports, grant guidelines, and lists of grant deadlines.

The other is the Grantsmanship Center in LosAngels  California. This organization also sponsors seminars and training programs on grant writing. Like The Foundation Center, it is geared more toward organizations than individual academic research, but it publishes a newsletter called The Grantsmanship News that lists new opportunities and offers helpful tips on preparing proposals.

Finding the Right Topic:

You may think this heading should come before “Finding Grant Sources.” Not so! Although you should have a general idea of the kind of research you want to carry out, knowing where the money is should influence your approach. 

Many times you will have to tailor your research idea to the guidelines and aims of a granting agency. Keep your mind open and your ideas flexible. You don’t want to mislead a granting agency into thinking that you’re interested in one approach or outcome, however, when in fact you intend to pursue another. That’s the surest way to cut off any future funding. The grants network is small, and word will spread if you don’t follow through on your projected proposal.

It’s important to call a staff member at the granting agency to discuss your idea. Almost all granting agencies encourage you to discuss your idea before it goes in writing as a formal proposal. This is an important conversation-part networking, part interview. You need to sound mature, competent, and courteous.  Have an outline of the components of your proposal in front of you and a set of questions you want to ask. But keep it brief. Try to get as much information as you can from faculty input before you pick up the phone.

Doing the Research: The Literature Review:

For students who help their faculty advisers prepare grant proposals, the literature review will be the bulk of their responsibility. Faculty members may ask students to review  the literature on a topic and write up their findings for the proposal itself. 

Students may also be asked to write up their research results from a pilot or preliminary study performed by the lab group. Helping out on these proposals while still a student is excellent training for learning the art of grantsmanship.

Here are some guidelines you should use, both in the initial research phase and in writing up your research for the research itself.

You’re Not Recounting History: The literature review section of a proposal is a narrative explanation and justification of your research project. It does not need to be exhaustive. It should simply summarize the status of the ongoing discussion in this area:  What are academics saying right now about this topic? What kinds of research are currently under way?

Once you’re decided the topic’s status, including results of recent studies and prospects for future research, you’re done. You won’t be able to show off your extensive reading of the subject area-the space provided for a literature review is brief, and rightly so. Remember that you’re not writing an academic paper. The goal of the literature search is simply to convince the funding agency your project is hot and worthwhile.

Narrate, Don’t List: Remember, you’re not writing a bibliography in this section of the proposal. Don’t just list previous studies and article on your subject. The research and studies you cite should justify your ideas precisely. You want to explain your reasons for conducting the study, not explain the topic as a whole. Try to keep in mind that you’re telling the reviewers a story, a story with a lesson at the end: “Money should be spent to learn more about this issue.”

Use Research to Point Out Gaps: Another strategy of the literature review is to show what it doesn't cover, as well as what it does. You may be able to justify your research project by showing where existing research is limited. A good literature review will reveal gaps in research, inadequate data collection techniques and/or errors of interpretation of existing date-suggesting not only that your idea is significant to the research community, but that your contribution will be original in the sense that it takes existing research a step further. By building off o other studies you show the reviewers that your project will contribute to the ongoing academic conversation.

Components of a Grant Proposal: When putting together the individual components of a proposal, remember the overall goal-persuasion. Each section of your proposal should be s sales pitch to the reviewers, demonstrating the project’s significance and your competence for the job. Don’t try to impress the reviewers using technical language-there’s a difference between technical jargon and sophistication. If you want to impress the reviewers, do it with precision and clarity rather than obfuscation. The proposal should be comprehensible and interesting to any professional in the field.

The sections of a proposal may differ from agency to agency, but most request the following:

  • Cover letter (including title): You should state, clearly and succinctly, the purpose of the project, its significance, and the anticipated results (for example, publication). The granting agency will index your proposal based on a key word in your title, so make sure your title is as specific as possible without being too long.

  • Project Summary (abstract): The abstract should run about 250 words and describe the project’s short-term and long-term goals. It may also include a brief description of the methods used to carry out the project. Be sure to link your project’s aims to the general goals of the granting agency.

  • Table of contents. The published guideline will describe the format you should use to organize the table of contents.

  • Literature Review: The standard literature review for government grant proposals is 15 pages.

  • Experimental Design and Methods: Here you will be describing any pilot studies you have conducted in the lab; subjects (human or animal) to be used; time line for proposed research; statistical methods and data collection techniques; data management and methods for interpretation of results.

  • Bibliography: This administrative section includes citations of references listed in the literature review and abstract.

  • Biographical Sketch or CV: Your CV should be tailored specifically to match the particular project. This section will also include the credentials of other collaborators on the project such as research and lab assistants, statisticians, and administrative personnel.

  • Budget: The budget will include costs associated with personnel-salaries, benefits, and consultant and contractor costs. Also included will be costs for overhead-space; equipment; consumables; travel; telephone; and copying, printing, and mailing. Do not underestimate your budget-ask for what you need, and estimate costs conservatively. It doesn't help to receive grant funding and then run out of money before the project is finished.

  • University facilities and equipment: Reviewers will not only be evaluating you but also your affiliated university. You need to demonstrate in this section of the proposal that your university can supply the equipment and materials to support your research.

  • Supplementary documentation and/or appendices: Particularly for projects that involve subject testing of humans or animals, supplementary documentation must be provided. Check the agency guidelines for what should be included. Don’t burden reviewers with extraneous detail such as statistical charts, graphs, supplemental bibliographies, and the like, if they’re not specifically requested.   

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