How to Write a Psych Research Paper

There comes a time in every young (and not-so-young) psychology student’s life when the inevitable emerges to challenge them, to stress them, and to encroach upon their precious Xbox time.

Research papers.

Not even art majors can escape their nefarious reach. So a student involved in a writing- and research-intensive program like psychology may as well resign themselves to the one thing that will scoot the process along as painlessly as possible — actually understanding how to put one together. It takes a bit of getting used to, admittedly. But the following guide provides some information to help alleviate some of the pain.

Choosing a Topic

The best topics are neither too broad to properly explore nor too narrow to prevent the writer from finding enough supporting information.

“A five- to 10-page paper on Freud is simply not possible because his work is so far-reaching that the student winds up writing a poor imitation of the summary chapter in the textbook,” says Dr. Steven LoBello, a psychology professor at Auburn University at Montgomery. “A good topic is considerably narrowed and focused.” For instance, instead of focusing on the entirety of Sigmund Freud’s life, LoBello suggests students would be better served examining how one of Freud’s teachings is applied today.

Pick something relevant to the class as well. For example, no matter how intelligent, cogent, and compelling a paper on Victorian psychology’s penchant for misogyny might read, it would not fit into a course covering neurology. Professors use research papers to gauge how well their students grasp the material. Failing to address their prompts could lead to a compromised grade.

Elizabeth Morris, who recently completed a master’s degree in counseling at St. Edward’s University, describes an ideal topic as “something that can be researched and have measurable results, [like] researching the correlation between children who play video games and acts of violence vs. stating that video games cause violence.”

“In a paper, you aren’t out to prove anything, but it is meant to share what has already been studied and the results of that study,” she says.

Students must also practice some degree of flexibility should one topic prove difficult to support.

“Knowing what’s viable ahead of time can be tricky,” LoBello says. “One might have to be prepared to abandon a topic if the literature base is inadequate or the topic is just too advanced for the student’s level of preparation.” Consider a few different topics to ensure at least one yields enough information and lends itself to a credible thesis.

The Thesis

This is the most integral component of a research paper. Thesis statements exist as the nerve center from which all major points diverge and sustain themselves. Weak theses lead to meager papers. Strong theses lead to confident, intelligent papers.

All theses must be expressed in concise and straightforward language. Muddying the major themes and ideas with unclear writing will make professors dismiss anything being said. Everything branches out from the statement, so an obfuscated thesis throws off a paper’s cohesion.

“A viable thesis is something that has enough support to make the statement, but also will provide room for further research,” says Morris.

As an example, Morris says that something like “When parents spoil their children, they become narcissists” isn’t an adequate foundation for a psychology paper because it “stat[es] something very broad and general as fact.” However, refining and narrowing the very same idea into “Permissive parenting styles may lead to the increase of narcissistic personality disorder” lends itself to a far stronger paper. This is because the more focused statement has “plenty of research to back it up” and isn’t stated as fact.

Theses should ask solid, supportable questions. The rest of the paper answers them in greater detail using professional publications.

Research

A solid thesis deserves solid research to back it up. Otherwise, readers will not believe the major ideas being pushed. Research is, unsurprisingly, the most intensive step in the paper process. It requires an overwhelming amount of reading and analysis to ensure the highest quality arguments. Fortunately, learning how to be savvy with sources saves time and bolsters the final grade.

“If you are writing an actual academic paper, you need to use actual academic resources,” says Morris. “When you are finding articles, make sure they are up to date … and you can find multiple articles that state very similar findings. If you can only find one article written in 1992, your research is not very reliable.”

She recommends only citing research published within the last five years to present the most accurate arguments possible. Professors largely want up-to-date, peer-reviewed sources from professional journals.

Nearly every college library subscribes to the most reliable industry journals (such as Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Psychological Methods, Psychological Review, and Health Psychology), either in print, digital copies, or through a massive database such as JSTOR or the psychology-centric PsychINFO. Librarians can provide the necessary login information as well as arrange interlibrary loans should the school not carry a required resource. There’s also the fantastically helpful Google Scholar.

Searching for the right book might seem like an intimidating task, but keyword searches using the library’s catalogue save time when the works of a specific author — say, Philip Zimbardo or Carl Jung — aren’t enough. They will call up reads relevant to the query. Go find them on the shelf and immediately turn to the index. Find the pages with the information and skim over it to see if the book provides reliable enough insight to fold into a paper.

When discussing the details of a specific diagnosis, psychology students must source the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychological Association (APA). It is the definitive guide to identifying and treating mental health conditions in the United States. The fifth edition comes out in May 2013.

Any interviews included in a research paper must be conducted with respected industry experts — no Robert Gerard Eardley or similarly disgraced source whose license was lifted for unethical practices. Expert sources certainly punch up papers and provide more in-depth insight, but you shouldn’t rely on them too much to support a thesis; interviews have obviously not undergone the same peer-review process used to vet journal articles.

When it comes to online resources, Morris heavily discourages Wikipedia. Its open editing structure makes vandalizing content and disseminating misinformation supremely easy. But that doesn’t mean all internet-based reads should be dismissed as unreliable. Generally, URLs ending with .edu or .gov will host updated, peer-reviewed information suitable for a research paper. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) are both legitimate and excellent reference points for psychology students.

Domains ending in .org should be approached with caution, as not every organization necessarily shares correct information and updated studies. The APA is the best example of a trustworthy .org. If one particular group seems alright, but still raises a few questions, ask a professor whether the industry considers their research valid.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary

Regardless of the medium, all sources fall into one of three categories: primary, secondary, and tertiary. The strongest papers analyze and support their theses largely using primary resources, supplemented by secondary when necessary.

  • Primary sources present original ideas and research. The DSM would be an example of a primary source, as it is the America psychology industry’s standard when diagnosing mental health issues.
  • Secondary sources analyze or build upon primary sources. Because the DSM qualifies as a primary source, an article critiquing the diagnostic criteria using previous scientific studies would be considered secondary.
  • Tertiary sources summarize or list primary and secondary sources; bibliographies, textbooks, and encyclopedias all count. Continuing the DSM example, a works-cited page by a fellow student including the work would be a tertiary source relevant to psychology research papers.

Juggling so many resources appears intimidating at first, but papers become more manageable once students pare down what works best for their ultimate goals.

“I think that deciding which information to keep and which to discard becomes quite easy if you have a properly delineated topic, one that is sufficiently focused such that the source either relates or it doesn’t,” says LoBello. “If it’s borderline, you hang onto it until you organize the information enough to know if it fits or not. If it doesn’t fit, it goes.”

Outlining

Regardless of whether a professor requires a basic outline, psychology students should still invest the time in writing one.

“It is an organizational step that students skip, thinking it saves time or is unnecessary,” LoBello says. “I think (that’s) unwise, like going off into some unknown place without a map. The outline is designed to guide the writer.”

LoBello cautions that outlines shouldn’t be too elaborate, either. “At that point, the danger is that you are not really doing an outline, but writing a poorly organized paper,” he warns. “I think it’s a good idea to get your sources, read them, take notes, think of an organizational structure, and then create an outline. I think a one-page outline ought to be enough to construct a five- to 10-page paper.”

Outline style tends to vary by professor, and the APA does not have formal guidelines for outlines, either. Rasmussen College’s library recommends writing them out using Times New Roman, 12-point type size, double-spaced lines, and one-inch margins. Purdue OWL has excellent sample outlines students can view for inspiration.

First Draft

All psychology papers need to be written using the APA style of formatting. Fortunately, an official rundown of everything it entails is available online.

First drafts might be on the rough side, but they should still reflect cogent arguments and an understanding of the source material. Some professors may ask for works cited, bibliography, or other writing alongside the first draft as well.

According to Morris, a standard psychology research paper should follow APA format and include a title page, abstract, introduction, methods, results, conclusion, and references. “In the first draft, it should be pretty well organized and references should be set,” she says. “A student should be able to accept critiques and make corrections,” says Morris.

LoBello looks for correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation when grading first drafts. Even though they are not meant to be considered as polished as final drafts, professors still want to see that their students comprehend their chosen topic from multiple angles.

“When doing research on a particular idea, one should always research opposing arguments and alternatives,” says Morris. For example, Morris says, if you’re discussing the negative effects of anti-depressants on pregnant women, you should also outline alternative treatments.

Morris also wants students to remember that research papers should strive for objectivity. ” A lot of students will see psych papers as a chance to argue for something they believe in, but if you are going to do that you need to make sure you know the opposing ideas or alternative solutions.”

LoBello outlines a few handy questions to ponder when penning the first draft of a psychology research paper. “The quality of expression is important — is the writing well done? Are words chosen and combined in an effective way? The content — does this paper do what it says it aims to do or does it go in several directions at once? Do I even understand what I’m reading? Is it organized?”

The Final Draft

Always consider professors’ notes on a first draft. They will point out spelling and grammar errors, as well as weak arguments, irrelevancies, and any other factor that does not feed back into the thesis. Some might even recommend further resources to explore.

“In a final draft, I would like to see as many problems that I have identified in the rough draft corrected. I am not happy to see problems that I took the time to correct once before. Spelling and punctuation errors are especially annoying at this point,” says LoBello.

He adds, “A rough draft may not conform to format specifications and may even lack some elements, like an abstract or a complete reference list. But these aspects of form must be present in the final paper. The final paper must look good as well as read well.”

Editing

For further assistance, schedule an appointment with your campus writing center. Staffers there are trained to spot spelling and grammar issues, and they can often offer new perspectives on an argument’s cohesion. Trusted classmates, friends, and family members might also be conscripted to express their opinions on what works and what needs changing. Another common strategy is to print out a paper and read it out loud. This helps catch any errors with sentence structure and coherence.

Properly managing time is also essential when transitioning between first draft and final — especially if a professor requests additional research. “Plan ahead, organize when you are going to do the different parts of the paper, and take breaks in between,” Morris says. “A well-written and thorough paper with substantial research cannot be done overnight, no matter how much coffee may be brewing.”

Your work may never see publication or a readership beyond your teacher, but you should treat it as if peer reviewers with Psychological Review will sit down and pore over everything tomorrow. Writing with professionalism as a student leads to writing with professionalism throughout your career begins.

The Last-Minute Checklist

Before turning in your final copy, check over the following points to ensure the best possible grade:

  • Strong thesis: Pick a thesis that answers questions through current, reliable research and lends itself to further inquiry. Remember, not too broad, but not too narrow. Avoid making definitive statements out of theories.
  • Citations: Make sure all sources receive proper credit. Forgetting to do so could lead to accusations of plagiarism — and with tools like Turnitin at their disposal, professors catch improper citations quickly and reliably. Quotes need to be quoted. Previous research needs to be attributed to the researchers. Make sure readers know which theorists concocted which theories.
  • Proper formatting: Always write using the most updated APA formatting techniques..
  • Clear arguments: Carefully dissect each major point for coherence. Enlist others, be they friends or writing center staffers, to share their opinions regarding whether or not the research provided genuinely supports the thesis. Make changes accordingly.
  • Spelling and grammar: Poor spelling and grammar obfuscate even the most brilliant, groundbreaking points. Don’t just rely on Word’s checks, either; they don’t always catch mistakes, and they sometimes they see errors in perfectly valid writing. Hand a paper over to others for a new perspective or try reading out loud to catch any problems.
  • Follow directions: If a professor gives notes on the first draft, implement them for the final. Respect page length, style requirements, and the inclusion of any additional writing — such as an outline, a detailed methodology, or an abstract — they require.

Morris stresses that students should invest their time in subjects they find interesting. “Have fun with it; find articles that you will be interested in reading,” she says. “Many of them are very long and tedious, and can be hard to translate. You have to be able to understand the research you are reporting, and this is best done when you actually enjoy reading the research.”

Research papers will always be inescapable, in school and in professional psychology careers. They might seem intimidating at first, especially to students relatively new to the process. But the process gets easier over time; nobody inherently knows how to conduct research and clearly analyze and convey ideas, after all. Always stay open to suggestions and input from professors and industry pros. This allows those ever-important communication skills to grow and flourish. Keep LoBello’s simple words in mind while working hard to meet that deadline: “Writing ability is timeless. It is an art.”