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Research 101

The steps of the research process & how to apply them.

The Research Process

How Research Happens

A researcher, especially an undergraduate student writing a term paper, goes through several emotional and cognitive stages during a project.

Stages of the Information-Seeking Process

This is an outline of the stages a researcher will typically go through during a project (summarized from Kuhlthau, ).


In the first stage, the researcher becomes aware of a lack of knowledge about the subject.

Characterized by anxiety and uncertainty.


In the second stage, the research identifies a general area for exploration. This is a time to build familiarity with the general subject. A research topic may have been chosen but has not been focused or refined.

Characterized by optimism.


As the researcher builds his collection of sources, the scope of the subject can become overwhelming, and contradictions between available sources become apparent. Research at this stage is exploratory, often unfocused, as the subject is still vague.

Characterized by confusion and stress.


During this phase, the researcher refines the topic, usually narrowing it, and discovers a means of synthesizing available resources.

Characterized by increasing confidence.


Research continues, now focused on the more refined, specific topic. Much of the general information gathered earlier ceases to be relevant.

Characterized by clarity.


The researcher prepares to report the information to others.

Characterized by relief or disappointment.

These stages do not necessarily happen one right after the other. Often, a researcher doubles back and goes through stages multiple times, such as when abandoning a line of inquiry and changing topics.

It’s okay to feel anxious while conducting research. However, if you are overwhelmed, that’s a great time to get help, such as by contacting the research librarian.

What to Do in Each Stage

According to Kennedy, Cole, and Carter (), your focus should differ during each stage.

  1. During stages 1 to 3 (initiation to exploration), build your general knowledge of the subject. Reference works such as encyclopedias are helpful and might give you clues as to how to focus your topic.

  2. You will eventually derive an area of focus from the sources you have accumulated and move into stage 4 (formulation). As you focus your paper, develop a thesis statement, the position you will demonstrate or defend. Formulating your thesis will clarify how to continue your research. Don’t worry if you have to backtrack and change it later.

  3. When you reach stage 5 (collection), look for more specific works to flesh out your topic.

The Steps of Research

This guide breaks down the subject of research into four steps. You will usually complete one step before moving on. However, you may sometimes return to a previous step or complete multiple steps simultaneously. Remember, you can always retrace your steps if you get stuck.