Notes on acquiring research skills

Andrew Chesterman



Research weaknesses


Typical research weaknesses seem to include these:


Reinventing the wheel > lack of awareness of what has been done before. Suggests poor ability to synthesize previous research, lack of critical reading, perhaps poor library skills.

Some research has rather weak aims, such as the wish to show how a concept or method can be applied to given data. Stronger aims would be e.g. to challenge a previous argument, to test a given hypothesis or to introduce and justify a new one, or to raise new research questions.

Shortage of explicit testable hypotheses, or clear new claims that could serve as the basis for testable hypotheses or counterclaims.

Lack of research on really interesting problems, those that have clear theoretical and/or social significance.

Too much research is either too trivial or too general and abstract > need to combine bottom-up and top-down approaches.

Lack of methodological explicitness? > Problems for replicability.

Lack of attention to possible counterevidence, counterarguments. Selective use of supportive examples and references.

Sometimes: weak conference presentation skills; weak academic writing skills.




Basic research skills and attitudes should be introduced early, at the BA level. Start with exercises in critical reading, learning how to use resources, producing written reports and summaries, learning to follow documentation norms. Create non-threatening space for oral presentations that can be criticized and discussed. Make use of process writing (revising drafts over and over again, after feedback). Encourage the development of curiosity, critical thinking and careful argument right from the beginning.

Set up a separate course in academic writing.

At the MA level level, introduce a basic textbook such as Williams and Chesterman (2002): The Map. Discuss it critically in class!

In an MA seminar or the like, try exercises on justifying a research question; on analysing the variables in a piece of empirical research; on citation analysis; on analysing different kinds of hypotheses in a published article; on analysing a set of data in terms of different categories (what to do with borderline cases?); on experimenting with alternative categorizations of the same data; on analysing the structure of an argument; on looking for counter-evidence against a given claim.

At postgraduate level, special sessions can focus on topics such as: writing a conference abstract; oral presentation skills for a conference paper; submitting a research plan for a grant; writing a book review; the advantages and disadvantages of case studies; questionnaire research; interview research; logical fallacies; project management.

Require postgraduate students to read an introduction to the philosophy of science, e.g. Alan Chalmers: What is this thing called Science? And get them also to read a good book on how to write a PhD, such as W.C. Booth et al., The craft of research.

Have regular supervision sessions, sometimes individual and sometimes in small groups. Encourage an atmosphere of friendly but rigorous debate, where disagreements are interesting.

At national level: try setting up cooperative frameworks between different universities and departments. See e.g. the Finnish Langnet graduate school (