English 102

Refining Your Search

If your initial search turns up too many or too few results, or the results don’t seem very relevant to your topic, you may need to refine your search. Here are a few suggestions:

Tip: Remember to use synonyms in your search! Often the author or the database will use a different term from the one you use. Just using a synonym in the search will produce lots of sources that might not show up using a single term.

For example, if you’re interested in gender discrimination, don’t just use “gender” as a search term—use sex, men, women, and, depending on your exact topic or question, maybe terms like masculine and feminine. Same for “discrimination”—try prejudice, inequality, inequity, chauvinism, bigotry, stereotype, and so on.

You may also need to refine your research question. Remember that the answer to your research question will lead ultimately to your thesis. Your question should be one that does not already have a cut-and-dried answer that most people agree on. Rather, it should be a question that people are still trying to figure out the answer to, so that your thesis will represent a meaningful contribution to an ongoing discussion.

Tip: If you are refining your question, there’s a very good chance you need to make it more specific. Often students think they are having trouble because their question is too specific, when in fact it’s too broad or vague. Most interesting questions in research are really quite specific, because those are the ones that let you produce good data.

Let’s look at the gender example again. Suppose your question is “How has gender discrimination changed in the past 100 years?” That’s a good start, but it actually still covers a huge amount of material. You want to answer some specific questions to help narrow your research question and make it more productive. Consider:

Use these and similar questions to narrow your focus. Use your sources for more suggestions. (Say you found a source on the glass ceiling—you might decide to focus your question on discrimination at higher levels of management.) You’ll find that your searches start turning up more and better sources.