Stress. This is the first word that comes to mind when I recollect my experience writing my undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation on Nigeria. The endless nights spent doing research with little to nothing to show for it was a tiring and deeply frustrating experience. But, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So, I have decided to make life easier for future researchers who are eager to write about African countries.
Below are a few tips to help you navigate the difficult process of conducting research on Africa. Whilst some are generic, others are specific tips I found helpful.
Choose a realistic topic: This is very important because it pretty much determines how the rest of your research and writing process will pan out. Your topic choice has to be practical and feasible. Do not just pick an area that you find fascinating, make sure the data available is sufficient before finalising your choice.
Create a clear outline. Ensure that you draw up a clear plan from the onset. Identify the questions you intend to answer, how you intend to answer them and what theories and evidence will aid you in doing so. At this stage, it would be smart to involve your dissertation supervisor to ensure you are both on the same page. Considering the fact that he/she is the marker, it is important that you both come to a mutual agreement on what the paper should look like when it is completed. If you are lucky enough to have been allocated an African supervisor or someone who is familiar with doing research on Africa, then life is somewhat easier for you. If not, always communicate the difficulty of accessing data/materials to your supervisor as they may be oblivious to this.
Google Scholar is your best friend. I found google scholar extremely helpful in filtering out relevant academic articles relating to my area of research. It also helps that it provides citations for each journal article/book, making your referencing task much easier.
Give yourself enough time to do your research. The one mistake students often make when writing is that they do not fully account for the time it takes to actually locate relevant materials for their topic. Failure to do so may cause you to spend way too much time looking for one argument at the expense of other elements of your work. Always take into consideration the fact that finding certain information relating to Africa may take longer than expected due to the paucity or just the non-existence of data.
If possible, stick to primary data. Secondary data can often be a nightmare to find when you do not know where to look. In such instances, it is always safer to adopt a primary research method, i.e interviews, questionnaires, focus groups, and so on.
Use your contacts. If you happen to know anyone working at an organization that possesses useful material for your paper, don’t be afraid to reach out. Send that email and make that phone call, it could be the missing piece to your puzzle.
When in doubt, use CTRL F. At various stages during your research, you might come across documents longer than 20 pages and it is often impossible to read through all pages and quite frankly a waste of valuable time. What I tend to do in such instances is use the CTRL F function on my computer to search for keywords relating to my work. By doing this, I am able to quickly determine whether or not the paper is relevant and move on to the next.
Another useful hack when you come across journal articles is to read the abstract and get the general gist of the paper before proceeding to read its content in detail.
Find sample papers on your topic. When writing my postgraduate thesis I barely found five solid academic articles on my chosen topic. This made life slightly difficult for me because I had to work with a limited pool of resources. If your topic is a bit more common e.g poverty in Congo, then most times, there are hundreds of academic articles you can go through to gain a general idea of structure, content and argument. This also lets you know what gaps you are filling and ensures that you are making a useful contribution to the literature. I would say however that you should do this sparingly as you do not want to unconsciously plagiarise.
You do not always have to write in chronological order. Be flexible in your writing. Work on each chapter while the ideas are fresh in your mind or if you stumble upon any relevant material. But, don’t forget to revisit these chapters later and ensure your argument is structured in a clear, consistent and coherent way.
Scroll to the last page of your google search. I personally used to stop looking at google search results after page 4. But, I have found that there are hidden gems lurking in the last pages.
Attach the term “PDF’ to your Google search. This sounds like an odd tip, but it makes a huge difference. Most academic articles are uploaded in a pdf format. So, by attaching the phrase “pdf” you sift through thousands of possible results and Google only shows you pdf contents which are most likely legitimate scholarly articles.
Do not forget to keep track of your references. There is nothing more exasperating than scrolling through hundreds of articles to find a single reference – so, this is very crucial and it can save you a lot of stress at the end of your writing. Bookmark everything, highlight important paragraphs and make notes of page numbers. I found apps like Mendeley Desktop and Citethisforme very useful.
Talk to your colleagues. I was fortunate to have friends and classmates doing similar topics and this was extremely helpful. Most times they would find useful information relevant to my work and share it with me, and I would do the same. Now, this may not always be the case but it is always good to have that extra support. Plus, it helps to have people to express your frustration to when everything seems static. As they say, a problem shared is a problem half solved.
Most importantly, enjoy the process. Yes, it is stressful, frustrating and you might develop eye-bags due to sleepless nights spent looking for data. But, in the end, when you have your finished work, it will all be worth it.
If you are interested in the impact of income inequality on economic growth in Nigeria, you can read my undergraduate dissertation here.
If you want to find out more about the politics of managing oil stabilization funds in Nigeria, you can also read my Postgraduate thesis here.
Thanks for reading & happy researching