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Capstone Research Skills: Tips for Searching

(Re)Searching = Learning

All research - even basic searching - is an iterative process. What does that mean?

(Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

As you search, use the information you find to help you make adjustments and ultimately get closer to the desired result.

Think About It

Even if your search attempt didn't give you any useful results, that doesn't mean it was a failure. What can you learn from the results you did get?

Take a look at the example scenario below to see how this might play out in practice.

Example: Part 1

In this example, I wanted to find information about the future career outlook for teachers. I used the library's Search Everything box to search for future outlook teachers.

I didn't find anything about the future job outlook for teachers, but I did find this:

This article isn't about the future outlook for teachers, but it is about the future outlook for a certain career field. I used the Subjects information (in the Details tab) to learn what type of words are usually associated with articles on this topic.

Depending on the database or search tool you use, articles will have Subject Headings assigned (some databases, like JSTOR, do not include subject headings), which is a way of grouping them together under a common topic using a standardized set of terms. For example, the subject Labor Market will be assigned to articles that all deal in some way with the labor market.

Having learned this, we can use these words in future searches to better direct our results.

Example: Part 2

Using the information I learned from my first search attempt, this time I searched labor market teachers.

This search gave me more useful results, though many still weren't quite on target. After browsing the first couple pages of results and looking at the subject headings, I found this article that discusses teachers and the labor market with an eye on the future.

Looking at the subjects, I can see that articles dealing with outlooks or predictions for the future may be associated with the subject terms forecasts and trends.

Example: Part 3

Now that I'm familiar with the subject terms that are relevant to my research, I can use them to perform an even more direct search. This time, I am limiting my search to only the subject headings.

By searching teachers forecasts trends, I get a set of results that are much more relevant to what I'm looking for:

To narrow my results even further, I can refine them using the options on the left side of the screen. For example, if I only want more recent information, I can limit the time period to the last five years. Or I could choose to show only results from peer-reviewed journals.

Final Thoughts

  • You can use this same thought process even when using search tools that don't provide subject headings, like JSTOR or Google. Use the article titles, descriptions, and abstracts to identify terms and ideas that can help you focus your search.
  • The example scenario used on this page is not a one-size-fits-all process. In your own search, you may find useful information in a field other than the subject headings, or you may follow a completely different set of steps. The example here is just one of many ways in which a search process might play out.
  • Remember that some databases don't assign subject headings - limiting your search to only the subject can be effective, but it may also exclude some relevant results.
  • Ultimately, a successful search requires careful observation, deduction, and critical thinking. Apply these skills and don't be discouraged, and you should ultimately be able to find the information you need.