During the last two decades, there has been growing interest in the integration of existing ideas and data to produce new synthetic models and hypotheses leading to discovery and advancement in estuarine and coastal science. This essay offers an integrated definition of what is meant by synthesis research and discusses its importance for exploiting the rapid expansion of information availability and for addressing increasingly complex environmental problems. Approaches and methods that have been used in published synthetic coastal research are explored and a list of essential steps is developed to provide a foundation for conducting synthetic research. Five categories of methods used widely in coastal synthesis studies are identified: (1) comparative cross-system analysis, (2) analysis of time series data, (3) balance of cross-boundary fluxes, (4) system-specific simulation modeling, and (5) general systems simulation modeling. In addition, diverse examples are used to illustrate how these methods have been applied in previous studies. We discuss the urgent need for developing curricula for classroom and experiential teaching of synthesis in coastal science to undergraduate and graduate students, and we consider the societal importance of synthetic research to support coastal resource management and policy development. Finally, we briefly discuss the crucial challenges for future growth and development of synthetic approaches to estuarine and coastal research.