How to do research for an essay

Carrying out systematic research is one of the key aspects of academic life. When investigating your topic, it is essential to bear in mind that you are not expected to know (and cannot know) all there is about the subject, nor should you try to cover everything in your essay. Target your research to what is relevant from the outset and always try to keep focused on the essay question and what it is asking you to do.

Some of the considerations you might want to address are:

  • reading list/subject literature—how much reading is necessary?
  • arranging access to restricted-loan library books
  • use of Internet or audio/visual sources
  • use of primary sources/gathering original data
  • planning museum or similar visits

Approaches to research

The reading list for your course or essay will provide a starting point for your study, but your essay should demonstrate that you have also carried out your own research into relevant texts and other sources. You can do this by:

  • Looking at the bibliographies in the texts in the reading list: if an author is cited in several different books their works may well be relevant and worth investigating.
  • Read through handouts or lecture notes: they are useful for background information and tutors may have recommended additional reading in them.
  • Familiarize yourself with the library section or sections relevant to your subject: browse through the titles on the shelves.
  • Use keyword, author, or subject searches in the library’s online catalogue: ask library staff to help if necessary.
  • Investigate the printed or electronic journals for your subject: they contain the most recent thinking and research. Read abstracts of articles to check whether they contain useful material.
  • Use the Internet to search websites or within online books or journals. Library staff should be able to direct you to relevant and authoritative sites.
  • Keep abreast of current affairs as they relate to the background issues surrounding your subject as a whole.

Once you have identified a selection of key texts and sources, you should then read each one and take notes in a targeted and accurate way.


Read more about essay preparation in:

How to plan time for essay writing

How to understand the essay question

How to organize material for your essay


Back to Writing essays.


See more from Tips For Writing Essays