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Course & Subject Guides

Department of Physics & Astronomy - Oakland Campus: Resources for Undergrad Students

This guide provides information and resources for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in the departments of Physics and Astronomy.

Help with Writing & Research

What is Scholarly Information?

Instructors often ask students to find “scholarly”, “academic”, or “peer reviewed” sources of information for their research.  These terms all refer to the same type of information – sources based on in-depth research, and are considered higher in quality and more reliable for your research. These sources can range from chapters within books or entire books, or journal articles, but all have common characteristics that can help you recognize that type of information.

Scholarly Journals:

  • Written for professors, students or researchers.
  • Have a plain appearance and titles may include words like "Journal," "Transactions," or "Quarterly”.
  • Articles are reviewed by a board of experts or "peer reviewed."
  • Follow a standard format: abstract, literature review, methodology, results, conclusion, possibly footnotes, endnotes and/or bibliography.
  • May include tables, graphs or illustrations to support research.
  • Very little advertising.
Example of scholarly journal is Nature Materials

Trade/Professional Publications:

  • May have a bright cover.
  • Provide information of use to a particular industry.
  • No specific format.
  • Articles sometimes unsigned.
  • General editors of the magazine review articles.
  • Advertising is used to appeal to those in the field.
Example of trade/professional publication is ASEE PRISM

General Purpose/Popular Magazine:

  • May have a bright cover with many glossy pictures.
  • Designed to attract a broad segment of the population.
  • No specific format.
  • Articles sometimes unsigned.
  • General editors of the magazine review articles.
  • May include tables, graphs or illustrations.
  • Lots of advertising.
Example of general purpose/popular magazine is Scientific American

Other Types of Sources:

  • Books

Books can be a good source of background information, especially if starting research in a new area, as they provide a comprehensive view of developments in a field.  A good place to find books is through PittCat, the library catalog.

  • Conference Proceedings

Conference proceedings report the significant events of an academic or trade conference.  Researchers often present new ideas at conferences as panel discussions, talks, and more, thus proceedings can be a good place to look for emerging ideas in a field of research.  Many of the engineering databases have a filter for conference proceedings.

  • Government Reports

Many government agencies publish reports based on research or analysis conducted by their organizations.  These are often considered reliable sources.  The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) Database has reports from various U.S. and international government agencies.

What is a Database?

When we refer to a database in libraries, we are referring to online resources that index journals, journal articles, conference proceedings, book chapters, and other content. These databases make it easy for users to search across multiple content types and content providers without having to search each provider individually.

  • Some databases offer access to a broad variety of content, and are often good starting points for research.
  • Other databases are subject specific and are useful for finding resources related to a specific field of research.

All of our databases offer multiple options for searching and refining search results, and many of the databases offer access to full-text articles.

How can databases improve your research? Check out the video below!

(Video from Yavapai College Library)

Formulating Your Search Terms:

With your research topic in hand you must formulate a search strategy. The first step in this process is to:

  •     develop a set of search terms you will initially use to search for resources
  •     draw an initial set of search terms from your thesis topic (e.g. magnetization AND plasma)

But it may also be helpful to

  •      try some more specific search terms (e.g. magnetic hysteresis, neutron irradiation)
  •     and possibly some broader terms (e.g. "fusion technology")

Refining Your Search:

Remember that the search process is iterative! It is unlikely that your first search will result in a perfect result set. Refining your search can return more relevant results, providing you with higher quality resources for your research. Use the tips below to refine your searches:

  • Alter Your Search Terms

Based on your search results, consider altering your search terms. Use more specific language (e.g. 'Alzheimer's' instead of 'dementia') or synonyms for your search terms (e.g. 'girder' instead of 'beam')

  • Combine Search Terms

Combining two or more search terms can help refine your results. In many databases you can search words as a phrase by enclosing them in quotation marks.  You can also combine search terms using Boolean operators (AND, OR, NOT).

  • Find New Keywords and Search Terms

Pay attention to titles, abstracts, and headings used in the results you find helpful.  Some databases also provide a list of subject terms, subject headings, or keywords for individual sources.

  • Filter Results

If your results set is too large, try using the filtering features of the database.  Most databases allow you to quickly narrow down a topic by selecting a date range, language, and publication type (journal article, conference paper, etc.).

Illustrated research paper process, see accompanying text


The Research Paper Process

The process of doing a literature search is not a linear process; these steps are iterative and you may need to repeat a step or circle back to a previous step throughout the process

Choose a Topic

Understand your assignment parameters, requirements, and due dates

Conduct Background Research

Search for news articles, top hits on Google, and encyclopedia articles.

Refine your Topic

Narrow down what you want to investigate. Think about the who, what, when, where, and why for your topic.

Create a Research Question

Come up with a tentative question you want to answer in your project.

Develop a Search Strategy

Select your resources and develop your keywords


Conduct multiple searches in relevant resources

Evaluate your Results and Sources

Use the CRAAP model: currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy, and purpose

Adjust and/or Repeat your Search

Try different keywords, resources, and strategies depending on your needs

Start Writing

Incorporate your sources into your writing from the beginning

Review and Re-Search

Fill in the holes, explore new areas of interest, dig deeper, etc.

Cite, Review, and Edit

Put the final touches on your project

The Writing Center:

Organizing your research and putting your ideas down on paper can be difficult.  You can get writing help at the Writing Center.

Citation Styles:

Need help using a specific citation style? See our Citation Styles guide for an overview of APA, MLA, Chicago/Turabian, and IEEE styles, or see this environmental engineering guide for an overview of ACS style.

Citation Management Tools:

Mendeley LogoEndNote Logo





Online citation managers are an easy way to keep track of all of your references. The University Library System resources work with tools such as Mendeley and EndNote. These are tools for importing citations from sources like PITTCat+ and article databases that can automatically integrate them into your research paper and bibliography. 

Help with Career Planning

Career Resources:

Other Useful Resources:

Resume & Cover Letter Examples and Guides:

eBooks on Resumes & CVs:

Public Speaking Tips for Engineers:

Also check out the guide on Speaking Prep @ Pitt for general resources.

TED Talks:

Learn by watching the experts!  TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds:  Technology, Entertainment, Design.

View the videos for public speaking tips to engage your audience.

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What is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) measures a student's verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills. The general test is not specific to any individual field of study, but measures skills important for success in graduate or business school.

See more at the GRE official test site or visit the University of Pittsburgh Testing Center.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Resources:

University of Pittsburgh students are eligible to get a free CLP library card, which will allow you to use the following resources.  See our instructions for how to get a public library card, or visit the CLP's website.

GRE Prep Books @ Pitt:

Search PITTCat+ for Graduate Record Examination or GRE to find additional titles.

Physics & Astronomy Professional Societies:

Careers in Physics & Astronomy: