Researching on Purpose

Filed right behind “Teaching on Accident” is “Researching on Accident”. I never intended to be a researcher either, but I took a job where researching was an important part of the libraries’ mission. I was a history major in my undergraduate, so I knew how to write, but I had never really thought much about social science research: how to do it, why to do it. The type of research that I did for my (two!) undergraduate thesis papers was almost entirely primary documents historical research, mostly at the trusty microfilm machine. I never had to think about human subjects because of all of my subjects were either dead or really, really dead.

I’m a pretty plucky person, I don’t scare easily, and I jumped right into research when I got to Purdue. During my first two years I attended all manner of different programs to better understand how to do research better.

I found the single most important thing in performing research is asking good questions. The research question should:

  • Be interesting to you
  • Help you do your job better
  • Have an answer
  • Be the sort of question where either answer is publishable and interesting.
  • Be sort of scary.

The last two things are the most important. Let’s say you did something really innovative and hard that very successful. You can’t ask a question like “How awesome was that instruction that I just did?” because if the answer is “not that awesome”, what are you going to do? That study is not going to be very helpful to other people. While failure is certainly more interesting than success, I think it’s too easy for people to have multiple reasons for failure, whereas people are much more comfortable with success that is attributed to one single factor.

Questions that are a little scary are even better because that means that they might just a little innovative because innovative questions are almost always scary. Now it’s okay for a question to only be “sort of” scary versus totally scary as you start out because after all you are publishing things outside in the field and you don’t want to research anything too scary because that might make your institution look bad. 

You will find that you were wrong about almost everything by the end of the project. Working and reflecting on something for months has that effect. Don’t be afraid to be humbled. Push through the terrible truth of being wrong. It’s really hard to be wrong, and you can be wrong in so many different ways in the research that you will probably be wrong in multiple ways. Maybe you didn’t read enough of the literature and you missed studies. Maybe the data collection did not go as planned. Maybe you found something halfway through that might have known something. Push through. Projects don’t need to be perfect, they need to be published.

In addition here are some other tips for people getting started.

  • Pick a good team. I personally discourage a project from having more than three people actively managing the project, because I really think by four authors, one of the team members is probably spending most of their time managing the other three members and not really contributing to the project actively anymore. Try to pick people who bring different perspectives
  • Pick a citation manager. You should probably pick a citation manager that is what other people you are working with use. Since it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, it is easiest just to use what is most common in your work area, That just makes things easier. I use Mendeley, most because when I got to Purdue, the people I worked with were using Mendeley.
  • Be nice to the people who administrate human subject research. At Purdue they hold office hours, and they would love for you to ask questions about how to do ethical research. Like librarians, they love to help!
  • Create multiple outputs/exit opportunities for your projects. You should think about different stages where you can abandon the project if it goes awry, so you don’t spend too much time on a project that isn’t that interesting to you. Most of my projects have an initial scoping presentation, a primary resources presentation, a first paper with possible future work and sometimes the opportunity for a follow up second paper building on the first. That way you can take projects as far as you want and then say no.
  • You can do it. You are amazing, your hair looks amazing, ask those hard questions.