Research paper guideline
by Paul Deng


How to find a topic

Finding a good research topic is believed to be the most difficult part of the research process. The bottomline is that your topic should be interesting to yourself. Writing with interest and passion is the first step towards success. Here are some tips that may help you find a good topic.

Read broadly.    The more you read, and more broadly you read, the more likely you will encounter a topic that interests you. For economics major, you are advised to read one or all of the following on a regular basis: Wall Street Journal, Economist Magazine, BusinessWeek and NY Times.

Think when you read.    Most of the ideas come upon surprisingly while you are reading. Sometimes a smart commentary, a deep background analytical report, or even a piece of news might trigger chained reactions in your brain. Don't let the moment pass by. Think, and think beyond.

Remember to write down your idea.    Whenever you have a good idea, no matter how small and how immature it may be, write it down, and save it. This is very important. Take out a piece of paper, use one or two sentences, the shorter the better. Or you can record all your ideas in a Word document called something like "research ideas". Later on, when you check your "idea box", you will be amazed to find out how many brilliant ideas you already have. Lack of ideas will never be a problem. Not any more.

Here is a list of sample research topics


Where to find references

Once you have found a topic, next you want to find out what has been written on this topic before, or simply you would like to see what other smart people had to say on the issue.

To find references in economics, a good source to start is EconLit (Economics Literature), a database specialized in the subject. To get quick access to EconLit at Brandeis, go to Brandeis library economics database, and click on the top. Now you can even access EconLit from off campus. The only thing you will need is UNet username/password.

You can search the database by typing in keywords, and search in abstract, title, author and so on. From the search results, you can read the abstract of the article, a quick way to screen out articles that are not related to your topic. If you find an article that matches your interest, and you also find a link that says either "PDF full text", or "Linked full text", that means you can read or download the article immediately.

In the case Brandeis does not have full access to the article, you may consider using ILL service. ILL stands for Inter-Library Loan. Go to this page, submit your request, and wait for about two weeks, your article or book will be fetched for you from other universities all around the country. If it's a journal article or certain chapters of a book, you will be provided a link to the scanned image; if it's a book, you need to go to library to check it out.

     Some more tips:

>Quick way to pin down a list of papers to read
Most likely you will find too much information on your topic. The question is how to narrow it down. The most efficient way is to start from an article that was recently published on a prestigious peer-reviewed journal. Look at what articles were cited in the author's reference list or in his Literature Review section.

>Start early
Since getting ready all the references takes time, it's your best interest to start the process early. After you have submitted your research proposal, you are advised to write out a sketch first and then expand from it. It'll be much easier if you write progressively. The worst scenario is that you burn the night before the deadline and work out a paper in a rush that nobody wants to read.

>Don't think too much, just write
Some students set a very high standard for themselves. They read, read and read but hesitate to write. They are worried about having not read enough. This is a common problem for A-level students. Remember, always have a draft first, then improve on it. Your first version is never going to be perfect.


Where to find data

         You can go to economics resources at Paul Deng's homepage, look under "data & statistics".
         Perkins' book (page xxiv) also has a useful data page at the beginning.


How to cite

I treat citation very seriously. For one thing, good citation style makes your paper look professional. For the other, you show your respect for others' work and you never want to commit plagiarism. Whenever you borrow work of somebody else, you are obliged to cite. So your paper should be written with established citation style. The link below gives you a guideline:

Chicago-style citation quick guide

Also, avoid excessive direct quotation, even if you cite. Be original in your own writing, cite other's work to support your argument, not to fill the space.


How the paper will be graded

A good term paper is a combination of the following:

>Good application of the course materials
The topic should be related to the course. And you're expected to apply the theories and analytical framework learned in class.

>Ask the right question and stay focused
A common mishap in writing is, ask one question at the beginning and say something else later on. While you are writing, make sure every paragraph and every statistics is used to answer the question. Do not write down anything irrelevant just to fill the space.

>Critical thinking
A boring paper would be a simple summary of what others have said before, or describe without analysis. Feel free to criticize and elaborate your idea with solid logic reasoning and statistical support. Learn to use counterfactuals. And be willing to challenge "conventional wisdom".

>Professional writing style
At the minimum level, prefessional writing style includes writing concisely with a professional layout and citation, and free of grammar and spelling mistakes. You will be given extra points if you write elegantly. If you are not sure about what a professional economics paper looks like, find a paper in American Economic Review or Journal of Political Economy. Students will find it extremely helpful in their later career if they stick to the professional writing style right from the start.

The usual layout starts with introduction, in which you introduce your question, motivation, and summarize your findings. The last part of introduction usually states the organization of your paper. This is generally followed by a section called literature review, where you review the seminal works related to your topic. Finally, all paper should have a conclusion section, in which you review or extend the paper.

For this course, you don't have to work out your own model. But you are encouraged to use data and statistics to support your argument in the analysis section. The right balance between literature review and analysis should be 2:3. Do not write literature review only.

Remember, this paper has a limit of 6 pages, not counting cover page, graphs, tables and references. For relative length of each each section, follow following guideline: introduction 1-1.5 pages; literature review 1-2 pages; analysis 2-3 pages; conclusion 0.5 page.

Your paper will be graded on a scale of 100.

  • Application of the course materials (30%)
  • Critical thinking and analysis (40%)
  • Writing style (30%)


Avoid plagiarism:

A Simple guideline


Sample papers :

sample cover page       

sample paper 1      sample paper 2     

student sample paper 1      student sample paper 2