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How to Write a Graduate-Level Essay

Step-by-step guidance and resources for planning, researching, and writing essays as a graduate student.

Develop effective searches

To determine what terms to use when searching your topic, it can be useful to write out your question and underline the words that express the central concepts. For example, if you are interested in researching:

What influence do terrorist attacks have on tourism?

You would focus in on the underlined words:

  • What influence do terrorist attacks have on tourism?

Then, you could construct your first search as follows:

  • terrorism AND tourism

Using AND

In most search tools - Google, Google Scholar, Discovery - the software that interprets your search assumes you are looking for your search terms near each other. In a few search tools, though - EBSCO databases for example - the software assumes you are looking your search terms next to each other, as a phrase. In these cases, you need to insert ANDs between your terms if you do not want to search them as a phrase. (The AND must be capitalized to work properly.) Because the AND is sometimes required, and because it never hurts your search, it is worth always inserting ANDs if you are planning on re-using searches in more than one search tool.

For this sample topic the search, 'terrorism AND tourism' is a good start. First searches can be fairly broad to get familiar with the kind of literature that is available. As you dig into your topic and develop a clearer understanding of where you want to be more specific, you can refine your approach.

The first step to refining your searches, and perhaps altering your research topic, is identifying other useful keywords. In addition to the words you think of, pay attention to the words and phrases in the document descriptions you find with your preliminary searches. These words can give you good ideas of what you might want to incorporate into future searches. For example:

  • instead of 'terrorism' you could experiment with 'terrorist', 'persistent terrorism', 'political violence' or 'political unrest'.
  • instead of 'tourist' you could experiment with, 'tourism', 'international tourists', 'international tourism', 'global tourism' or 'domestic tourism'.

Searching for phrases

If you want to search for two or more words as a phrase, enclose those in quotation marks. For example, a search for "international tourism" will bring back results with those words side by side.

Using OR

If you want to search more than one similar term/phrase at a time, insert a capitalized OR between the words/phrases. The OR must be capitalized for it to work properly. For example, a search for 'terrorism OR “political unrest”' will bring results with one or both of those words/phrases.

Putting all this together:

You can combine all of these tips at once to make your searches more efficient. For example, a search for (terrorism OR “political unrest”) AND (“global tourism” OR “international tourism”) will look for literature that has either the word 'terrorism' OR the phrase, “political unrest” as well as either the phrase, “global tourism” OR “international tourism”.

Being able to search for different combinations of useful words and phrases helps you save time.

Want more information? Check out the DEMN Linking Research With Practice Research Question to see an example of how a real research question was broken down into searchable keywords.

If you're still unclear about choosing keywords or setting up your search structure, please speak with a librarian.