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Dissertation Research in Education: Searching

This guide was created to teach doctoral students to select, search, evaluate and organize their dissertation research project.

Do you have a Plan?

Do you have a research plan?  Do you know what keywords and subject terms you need to use?  Which databases are availabe to you and which ones you have already searched?  Do you know which searches worked and which didn't?

Keep a written record of your research - where you have been and where you plan to go.  This will help you think about the process. 

Writing things down will facilitate brainstorming. It will help you clarify your topic and keep you focused

If you keep a record of of where your research has taken you, you will know what worked and what didn't.  You will not find yourself repeating bad searches.

A Search Strategy

Develop a search strategy as part of your research plan.


EXAMPLE:  How do school principals in rural schools demonstrate successful leadership?  You would like to find qualitative and quantitative studies on this topic.

Your keywords are:  principals and leadership and rural schools and studyDemonstrate and successful are implied and do not need to be included.  Qualitative and quantitative may also be used, since these terms often appear in the abstract, or paragraph that describes the article or report.

  • Use "and" to narrow your search down and focus onto your specific topic by combining two or more terms.  All terms must be present.
    Example: principals and leadership and rural schools and study
  • Use "or" to broaden your search by combining synonyms or alternative forms of words.  Any of the words must be present.
    Example:  principals or administrators
  • TIP:  Use truncation to automatically get words with variant endings, including plurals.  This makes your search more efficient because it cuts down on your number of searches.  Each database uses one or more punctuation marks as a truncation symbol.
    Example:  In ERIC leader* finds leader, leaders, leadership and so on.


Keyword vs. Subject

Which types of search terms should you use?



natural language

controlled vocabulary

guess which words the author used

points to preferred subject terms

only finds the words that are searched

will find the topic searched


Search syntax

Boolean operators 
   AND (narrows) OR (broadens) NOT (excludes)

principals AND leadership

   ( ) keeps like terms together; frequently used with Boolean operators like OR 

(principals OR administrators) AND (religion OR spirituality)

   " " works like grouping except you keep words/phases together in a sequence, especially words that are stop words (a, an, the, of, etc.)

"learning outcomes assessment"

* (either *, ?, or !) works as an operator at the end of a word, allowing retrieval of a word and its various endings


   ? Allows for the substitution of a symbol (using either *, ?, or !) for a letter or letters when a word varies internally.

wom?n for women or woman