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US studies: How to write a research paper
Matthew Schneeberger
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August 13, 2007

Indian students going to the US face several hurdles: language problems, food concerns and social differences to name a few.

These issues sometimes receive more attention that the actual crux of foreign studies -- what happens inside the classroom.

For Gauri Singh, a recent US graduate, this was a huge problem.

"Everyone told me about American airports, how to use toilet paper and countless other small points. But, in the end, no one prepared me for the academic differences between India and the States," she says.

When asked what the most difficult aspect of US education was, she doesn't hesitate.

"Without question, writing research papers and reports was the most difficult. The entire process is completely different. In the US, you're expected to do all your own research in the library, pick a topic, organise an essay and write a clear piece. Most importantly, and it took me two years to learn this, every paper must have a thesis statement!"

Students leaving for US studies should heed Gauri's advice and start preparing for the countless research papers they're likely to write while abroad.

Today, we'll examine the structure and form of the research paper. Tomorrow, we'll detail the research process and how to avoid plagiarism when citing your sources.

It's like a burger?

Writing a proper essay is similar to making a sandwich. First, you need the ingredients.

For the sandwich: two pieces of bread, condiments (sauces, cheese, chilli flakes) and slices of meat/vegetables.

For the essay: an introduction and conclusion, relevant quotes and statistics, and central paragraphs.

The two pieces of bread form the top and bottom of the sandwich. They give you something to hold onto and keep the sandwich from falling apart.

In much the same way, your introduction paragraph/s and conclusion paragraph/s give your essay a sense of cohesion. Remember, the first and last thing the reader encounters are your introduction and conclusion. The former needs to draw the reader in and the latter must leave a strong impression.

If you begin with dense statistics and heavy analysis of an issue, there's a good chance you'll confuse or discourage the reader. Instead, provide an introduction paragraph that catches the eye and highlights the issue or topic in an attractive manner.

Your concluding paragraph is just as important. The finest paper can be marred by an abrupt or insufficient ending. It's your chance to review all your major arguments and to end the essay on a light-hearted or memorable note.

A common technique used by the foremost researchers in US academia is to bring a part of your introduction back into the conclusion, which gives the essay a well-rounded and complete feel.

For example, if you begin with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi [Images], tie another of his quotes into the conclusion or at least reference him.

Technically, condiments aren't necessary when making sandwiches. But, as anyone who loves the bite of black pepper or the zesty tang of tomato ketchup knows, they certainly make a plain sandwich extraordinary.

Likewise, when you write an essay, statistics and quotes can be left out without destroying the essay's form. But to write a truly memorable and exception essay, you're going to need to spice things up.

Relevant quotes from respected sources and statistics attractively presented in charts and graphs will help convey your point and make your argument stronger.

A good rule to follow: bolster every 'point' you make -- usually four or five arguments in a medium length paper -- with at least one citation, reference or statistic.

The bread holds the sandwich together; the condiments give it a zing. But ultimately, it's the meat and veggies that truly make the final item worth eating.

The same can be said for writing an essay -- your central paragraphs form the bulk of the piece. These paragraphs fall between your introduction and conclusion and contain all the heavy analysis.

Here, you'll dissect the issue and examine it through several different perspectives and points. While a glossy introduction and a neat conclusion make your paper presentable, without a well-reasoned and supported argument, your essay has no legs.

The thesis statement

Inevitably, the most difficult part of writing essays in US universities is the thesis statement.

A thesis statement articulates the purpose or argument of a research paper. A good spot for the thesis statement is at the end of the introduction. Basically, it is used to outline the issue and to present an argument which the writer will then attempt to bolster or prove. A thesis statement cannot be merely a summary; it must 'take a side', so to speak.

The thesis statement is very important because it forces you to organise mounds of research and information and form it into a coherent statement, usually a sentence or two for medium length papers.

Let's say you're assigned a paper looking at the merits of a two-party democratic system (like the US) versus a multi-party system (like India).

Depending on the result of your research, you may have a thesis statement like this:

'Multi-party democratic systems are superior to two-party systems because they encourage alternative legislation, enfranchise minority elements and better mirror the true make-up of a population. In this paper, I intend to demonstrate these points by analysing voter registration data, policy output and electoral campaigns from several democratic nations.'

In this thesis, you've made three clear points and explained how you will prove them.

From an early age, American students have had the importance and necessity of thesis statements imbedded into their brains. Indian students don't have this advantage, and therefore, must work doubly hard to ensure good form and structure to their essays.

One point to remember is not to force your paper around your thesis statement. If your research and analysis exposes flaws in your thesis, don't sacrifice in order to 'make things fit.' Instead, think of it as organic and a work in process. As your view changes and you uncover new information, alter the thesis to reflect these discoveries.

Remember, some researchers have been working on the same thesis their entire lives!

Part II: Cite sources to avoid plagiarism

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