Grad School Advice: How to do Background Research

Grad School Advice: How to do Background Research

Reviewing the literature so you can 1) write the literature review and 2) understand what research still needs to be done can be the most tedious part of the research process. So I’ll break it down for you.

Part of the research process is seeing what’s already out there because new research is meant to build off existing research. You review the literature by finding published literature, reading it, and taking notes on it.

Review the Literature

Remember doing annotated bibliographies? Well, get used to doing those. But remember that your research is going to be read by your professor and others who will work on the research paper, so you need to take notes that will make sense for everyone coming to read your annotated bibliography. Here’s an example of a format to follow:

  1. Citation in APA format
  2. Abstract
  3. Bulleted list of key findings and other sources to consult

Here’s what that might look like:

Ellison, N., Heino, R., & Gibbs, J. (2006). Managing impressions online: Self-presentation processes in the online dating environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), 415–441. https://doi.org10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00020.x


This study investigates self-presentation strategies among online dating participants, exploring how participants manage their online presentation of self in order to accomplish the goal of finding a romantic partner. Thirty-four individuals active on a large online dating site participated in telephone interviews about their online dating experiences and perceptions. Qualitative data analysis suggests that participants attended to small cues online, mediated the tension between impression management pressures and the desire to present an authentic sense of self through tactics such as creating a profile that reflected their ‘‘ideal self,’’ and attempted to establish the veracity of their identity claims. This study provides empirical support for Social Information Processing theory in a naturalistic context while offering insight into the complicated way in which ‘‘honesty’’ is enacted online.

Key Findings:

  • technology-mediated relationship formation and to gain insight into important aspects of online behavior, such as impression formation and self-presentation strategies.
  • Mixed-mode relationships, wherein people first meet online and then move offline
  • Self-presentation: Demonstrating credibility, misrepresentation
  • Self-disclosure: ideal self, constraints
  • Constraints: nonverbal cues

You’ll do this for each article you find. But how do you find those sources? There are a couple places you can look. Before we get to that, there are a couple things to keep in mind when you’re looking for sources. First, you’ll want to look at the most current research (within the last 10 years or so). These sources will cover older research in their literature review, so you’ll get what you need by reviewing the most recent literature.

Here are the places you can search: 

I. Your Library website

Go to your library website. You may find that your librarians have put together research guides for your discipline. You may want to start there and look through databases related to your field.

If you’re looking for print materials or e-books, the library also has a wide selection that you can search through.

II. Google Scholar

Google Scholar is another great resource for finding articles and books related to your research project. Go to Search for your topic, and then use the settings options to limit your search to a certain year range. If you’re on your university wifi, when you open a page from Google Scholar, you might be able to access the article right away. Other times, the website will indicate you need a subscription to access the article. In that case, you have to do a little more work to get access to the article. Here are the other ways you can find that article:

  1. Google the name of the article surrounded by quotation marks followed by “pdf.”
    1. Example: “Development of multiliteracies and use of affordances on Whatsapp: A Brazilian experience” pdf
    1. When you search the article title, you might be taken to a PDF of the article. This is because sometimes a scholar has uploaded their paper on their personal website,, or
  2. Go to your university library website and put the name of the article surrounded by quotation marks in the search bar.
    1. Example: “ExampleParental media socialization and educational attainment: Resource or disadvantage?”
    1. Sometimes the library will provide you with a link to the article as a downloadable PDF or it will redirect you to the publisher’s website where you will have access to download the PDF of the article.
  3. Look at the name of the journal where the article is published. Find the journal on your library website and open the link that will be redirected from your institution’s library website if your institution pays for a subscription to that journal. You can search for your article by name or search for the volume and issue it was published in. Then hopefully you’ll be given access to to download the article as a PDF. If not, then go back to the search page and see if there are other links to the same journal.
  4. Then finally, if you can’t find the source you’re looking for after trying all of the above-mentioned methods, then go to the library’s Interlibrary Loan form. You will fill out the online request form for the type of media (book, article, etc.) you are looking for, and your library will reach out to other libraries to see if they have your book. They will then send the book to your library on loan for you. If you just want an article or a book chapter, you may be able to get a PDF of it.

Those are the basics! I hope you find them helpful!

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