This guide looks at writing a research essay. We also have other useful guides to different sorts of essays including persuasive essays and critical essays, so take a look at these as well. Obviously, research essays have a lot in common with the other forms of essays: the language should be academic, and they should be clearly structured with an introduction, main body and conclusion. Refer to our guide ‘what is an essay’ for more details. This guide will focus on what is unique about a research essay.
The Purpose of a Research Essay
In order to understand how to write a research essay, it is necessary to understand what it is, so you can focus upon what you are asked to do.
A research essay is primarily concerned to give an informed overview of a particular topic, based on the most appropriate research in the field. Depending on the subject, the research may also need to be recent.
In some cases, a research essay also needs to analyse or critique a perspective, or argue for a particular point of view.
All research essays should present a full survey of a particular field of knowledge.
Research essays, or papers, are associated particularly with PhDs.
Make sure you thoroughly understand what you are asked to do, read the title (if there is one) and also any documents your tutor has given you with further guidelines. Are you being asked to do a report on a particular topic, analyse an issue, or something else
Plan a schedule of work (what you are going to do, and by when) and set deadlines for yourself in order to meet the final deadline set by your department.
Use the course textbooks, reading materials and reading lists as a starting point. Expand outwards and carry out keyword searches in relevant electronic databases. Use bibliographies and reference lists for more ideas.
Keep a note of questions and ideas as you go along.
Working on your Essay
Continue to make notes as you research. Consider using a table to collate information. Don’t forget to include full details of the paper or textbook – you’ll need these for the reference list. Note the page number of any quotations you use
It’s often a good idea to brainstorm with others: your tutor, your fellow students, or even friends outside your course. Different people bring new perspectives.
Make sure you are working to schedule. If there’s a problem and you are finding it hard to progress as you need to, consider seeking advice from your tutor. You might be being unreasonable about how long stages should really take, or using inappropriate research strategies.
As you research, move from a broad focus to a narrow one. Initially look for overviews of the topic using a range of tools from key word searches of internet databases to hand searching journals.
While giving a broad overview, and covering different perspectives, don’t lose track of what interests you about the topic.
As you learn more about the subject, continuing to make notes, develop a particular focus to shape your essay.
Writing Up your Ideas
Organization is key. You should by now have an extensive collection of well-organised notes. Start organising the collection in terms of common themes or sub-topics. This stage may well reveal gaps in your research which you can now address.
You should now be breaking down the information into its parts, and showing how they relate to each other, looking at different aspects of the topic and relating them together.
You could compare and contrast, bring out advantages and disadvantages, show the logic of cause and effect, develop the implications of a particular premise
Now is also the stage to remove irrelevant information
Make sure your writing style is appropriate for an academic audience.
Your tutor might suggest a model structure, otherwise you might use an outline similar to this:
Introduction (problem statement, outline of area, what will be covered)
Main body I (overview of area)
Main body II (main theoretical perspectives)
Main body III (practical perspectives / current implications of topic)
Main body IV (the future, suggestions, reflections)
Conclusion (summary of essay, suggestions for future research / practice)
Consider having other people read through your essay and critique it. Even if you disagree with their comments, the new perspective is useful.
Read through your essay yourself to check it makes sense; look for grammatical and spelling errors. It’s easier to do this if you print a copy out rather than reading it again on screen.
Double check your references and citations. Make sure you use the recommended format.
State University of New York (2013) ‘What is a Research Paper?’ [online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
University of Leicester (2013) Writing Guide 2: Writing a Research Paper
[online] (cited 13th February 2013) available from
Schwartz, K L (1997) ‘Step by Step Research and Writing’, [online] (cited 12th February 2013) available from
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