Wednesday 26 February 2014

Five Easy Steps to Write a Research Essay

One of the most intimidating experiences for recent college entrants is the first research essay. One reason is that either they have never seen a research essay and don't know the format, or they've seen a professionally published article at a post-doctoral level, which looks way more complex than they are capable of writing.

Don't fear! Writing your first research essay is a simple process. Always focus on the learning outcome you are trying to demonstrate to your teacher. Here are the key learning outcomes for your first research paper.
  • Use the library to locate relevant articles.
  • Summarize the findings in the articles.
  • Evaluate the arguments made in the articles.
  • Synthesize the arguments and make a conclusion.
  • Cite your sources accurately using APA (usually) and write a reference list.
Let's look at these steps one-by-one.

First, you need to use the library to find articles relevant to your topic. You will likely do this using a computer search. You can do this at home or in the actual library. The main advantage in using the library is that a librarian may be able to help you to find the articles. The key to this is to use the database to search for relevant terms.

Notice I said "database" not Google. You do not want to waste your time with Google, because Google will give you every general document using your search term. The library database will search the peer-reviewed journals that the library subscribes to, so you know that the results of the search are worthy of investigation.

Be specific in your search terms. For example, if you are writing a psychology paper on neuroplasticity, do not search for "psychology"; only search for "neuroplasticity." The broad search will give too many results. It's better to be too narrow than too broad, because as you widen your search, you will start to find papers relevant to your topic.

Each paper you find will contain an abstract. The abstract is a short statement of the content of the paper. It should be very helpful in determining if the paper might be helpful. Also it will give you some new search terms that could be relevant to your topic. Keep searching until you have at least six papers that might be helpful to writing. (Don't worry, you won't need to read all.) I've done searches and made lists of over 20 papers just to write an 8 page paper.

If the abstract seems relevant, read the introduction and conclusion of any relevant paper. This should help you in two ways. The introduction will provide you with a lot of general knowledge about the topic. The conclusion will help you to understand what the researchers have to say.

If the conclusion is relevant to your essay and you believe that the paper is important to cite, read the entire paper. Pay the most attention to the methodology, discussion, and conclusion. Unless you are in a statistical methods class (in which case, this shouldn't be your first research paper) don't worry much about the statistical discussions.

Even if the assignment says "cite at least one source," remember my mantra: Do the minimum; get the minimum. Use more sources than required to show off your research skills. Your mark may go up as a result.

Make some notes on what the different papers say. Remember, for key concepts, the papers will cite some of the original thinkers. For example a psychology paper on motivation might include references to Mazlow's hierarchy of needs. It's always good to include similar references to the original ideas that the specific topic is built upon. Scholarship is like a building that is built one storey at a time. Acknowledging the foundation is like building carefully.

Arrange your notes into the argument you wish to make. Your thesis does not have to be original, you can agree with or defend someone. There are often different points of view available. In a research paper, you can assess the arguments. Again, if this is your first paper, being right or wrong here is not important to your mark. You have already demonstrate key learning outcomes by finding the articles, reading them, and expressing your understanding.

Now you should be ready to write. Using point form, arrange the key facts you wish to show. Back up these with quotes or paraphrases from the papers you have read. Quote if the writer of the paper has said something in exactly the perfect way. Paraphrase if you simply want to include the information. Follow each use of someone's material with the appropriate citation. In APA style, you place the author's name(s) in brackets, followed by the year of the publication, followed by the page number. End the citation with a closing bracket, then the period for the sentence. If you are in doubt about how to do this, also read my post on How to Use APA Style.

This might seem complex, but really it comes down to this. To write a research essay, first do research, next figure out what the research means, and finally, write about it.

After you've written your paper, if you are still worried, hire an editor to polish the paper. When you get your edited copy back, review the edits to see how you can improve for your next effort. No one is perfect at anything their first try. Just don't give up!
Updated April 2, 2014.

Monday 24 February 2014

How to Write a Cover Letter

The cover letter can be one of the critical steps in getting you an interview. No matter what your career goal, the first thing you need to be is a salesperson because the product you are selling is yourself. The cover letter is your first hurdle.

How to write a cover letter - update

Since writing this post, I read this fantastic article on writing a cover letter for an employment application written by NPR. I learned a lot from it, in particular, the first part about not beginning the letter with the redundant phrase, "I am writing to..." Since you are obviously writing, the much more succinct phrase "I am applying..." would be an improvement. I notice a similar issue in essays that use phrases such as "In a study..." or "It is the purpose of this essay to show..."

I shouldn't have to tell you that networking is a key part of developing your career and the social networking site LinkedIn is one of the key places to do that. Unlike Facebook, you can present your most professional self on LinkedIn without all the cute cat pictures. Here's an article I found on LinkedIn on writing a great cover letter. By the way, my LinkedIn connections can get a 10% discount on editing business documents such as cover letters, when you access the "Special for LinkedIn Members" link through my LinkedIn profile.

The cover letter has one goal: to get your resume into the pile of people who will potentially be interviewed. It has to be concise and outstanding. It serves as your introduction, and remember: you never get a second chance at a first impression.

The first step in writing a cover letter is introducing yourself. It begins with a salutation (greeting). If there is any way to find out the name of the person doing the hiring, address the letter to him or her. Do some research to find out the name of the hiring manager, personnel manager, or supervisor, depending on the company you are applying to. You can even phone the receptionist. Having the right name (and spelled correctly!) is one way to differentiate yourself from the pack. Otherwise, use "Sir or Madam". The salutation begins with "Dear" and ends with a semicolon.
Dear Sir or Madam;
Next, you identify which position you are applying for and when and where you saw the ad. If there was no ad, then simply identify the position.
I am applying for an entry-level accountant position in response to your advertisement on February 24, 2014 in the Wall Street Journal.
While you were researching the name of the hiring manager, you should also have been researching the company. Show your knowledge about what they do and demonstrate your research skills by mentioning something about the company.
I am excited to have the opportunity to apply to Joe's Accounting Inc. Your company has been recognized for its achievements with the Accountant of the Year Award presented to your managing Partner Joe Accountant, and your contributions to the community through Big Brothers and the Food Bank are well-known. I also noticed that you were awarded the contract to audit General Motors recently. I believe that employment at Joe's Accounting would give me the opportunity to learn from some of the most respected accountants in the tri-state area.
Now you need to begin selling yourself. If there are professional qualifications required for the position, make sure these are up front. If the ad specified some skills or qualifications, then these must be put in the cover letter near the beginning. Don't assume the reader will also look at your resume.
I believe I would make an excellent candidate for this position, as I am a recent graduate of the State University Business School with a concentration in Accounting. In addition I hold a C.A. designation.
Follow this with some statements of your best recent achievements relevant to the position. You didn't have to win the Nobel Prize, but you need to put yourself ahead of the competition in some way. This should be a new paragraph.
As you can see from my attached resume, I have been working in a bookkeeping position while I was attending school. In addition, as a member of the Accounting Club at State University, I provided tax and financial planning advice to senior citizens in our volunteer clinic. For my efforts in the community, in 2013 I was awarded a certificate of citizenship by Mayor Joe Quimby.
 In your final paragraph, sum up your experience, supply any special elements about yourself, and invite the hiring manager to contact you. Even though all your contact information should be on your resume, you should repeat it here.
I am excited about the possibility of working for Joe's Accounting.  I am available for an interview at your convenience. Please contact me at 000-0000-0000 or through my email:
One final note: if this is your first job, get a professional email address. Even though any company will likely provide you with a company email address after you are hired, is more likely to get a reply than

And do I need to say this? Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. And get someone else to proofread as well.
Updated February 28, 2017.

Sunday 23 February 2014

5 Essential Job Skills You Can Learn in School Today

As a teacher, I don't believe school is all about job skills. I believe education is for citizenship since in a democracy, citizens have to make informed decisions about important issues and choose who should lead the country. In addition, education is to open our minds and hearts to ideas and experiences that will enrich our lives. But I teach a lot of students who are reluctant to learn, and unfortunately they are not learning some of the most important lessons that school has to teach us. Hence, this post is for them. Unfortunately, most of them are not reading; they are playing video games like Flappy Birds, or watching YouTube.

1. Be on time

All too often students enter the class late without apology. When I ask them about it they say "I'm only a few minutes late," or "At least I came!" These are all well and good, but I've also heard from former students who were surprised that employers did not accept these lame excuses. You can show up late every day and still get into class and pass. If you show up late for work regularly, you will be fired. I had a student who was 10 minutes late every day because the bus only ran once every hour near his home. An employer would expect you to get that earlier bus. In fact, that's an opportunity to show up early and impress your boss, not a reason to be late every day.

2. Listen to instructions

First I tell the whole class what to do. Then each person who was not listening asks "What am I supposed to do?" In a workplace situation, that's like telling the boss "I don't know what my job is." Although it's true that instructions can sometimes be complicated and asking for clarification is better than doing a job incorrectly, paying attention the first time is the best way.

3. Stay on task

When you are given a job to do, do it! People get fired every day for playing games, texting, or going on Facebook while on the job. Low level (starting) employees are often monitored through video surveillance and computer monitoring. Do not assume that because you can't see your supervisor, they can't see you. I spend half my time in the classroom reminding people to get back on task. If you haven't learned to self-regulate your attention by the time you finish school, then you are in for a rude awakening.

4. Take breaks at appropriate times

 This is similar to the item above, but it means eat during lunch and coffee breaks. It means think ahead. If you skip breakfast, you will be hungry well before lunch. Believe it or not, I have students who want to leave class to go to buy food and they say "But I'm hungry!" And yes, I understand that they are hungry, but if I were an employer, I'd say "Go, but don't come back." This doesn't mean you might not keep a PowerBar in your desk drawer for a quick protein break in the middle of the afternoon, but you would never leave a job to go and buy food.

5. Do more than the minimum

One of my mantras in teaching is "Do the minimum; get the minimum." If you can only meet the minimum criteria, then you get a "C". But in the workplace, you want to move ahead, you want to get a raise, and you want to be considered for a promotion. Always ask yourself "How can this work be better?" Arrive early, stay late, and look for ways to improve your work and your working environment. In school all you get is an "A"; in the workplace you get recognition, money, and job security. And that doesn't mean sucking up. Even in a unionized environment, it might not be allowed to do things outside your job description, but you can help your workmates, be reliable, and take responsibility for making sure a good job is accomplished.

Updated April 2, 2014.