Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Understand How Others Go about Research. Step 0: Let Experts Reveal Their Messy Realities

Kai Chan for CHANS Lab Views

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

Listening to established researchers is absolutely key to learning how to do research, but not via regular research talks. Those teach you very little about the messy realities you’ll have to navigate.

Imagine: you’re sitting in a lecture hall (or these days, on Zoom), listening to a researcher you truly respect. Chances are, the talk seamlessly proceeds from a compelling statement of context through to research questions that spark your inner curiosity, innovative methods, interesting findings, and impactful implications for both academia and the broader world.

Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. Plan for it, by understanding others’ messy realities.

Star-struck in your seat, you think, “It’s so easy for them.” And then you think either, (a) “I’ll do it just like that,” or (b) “I could never do that.” Thinking (a) is hubris, because the process of research is never that tidy. Thinking (b) is your imposter syndrome: you can do great work, but tidy talks won’t tell you how to get there.

Research design and execution—particularly in early stages—is sausage-making. Anyone who suggests that it’s a simple, straightforward process is afraid to reveal their sausage factory. For most of us, it’s the equivalent of pig lips and bums, blood and gore all over. Sorry to fellow animal-lovers for the imagery, but that’s the truth, metaphorically.

So, because there’s tremendous wisdom and insight in established researchers, particularly those who both do research and guide students through it, bring in the experts for their unique insights. But do it in a way that makes it abundantly clear that you don’t want the usual research seminar. You want some of that, but interspersed with the raw, ugly truths about the sometimes-bumbling, sometimes-lucky journey that got them there.

You want this because no matter how carefully you plan it out, you will have your own messy realities. You’ll have your own bumps in the road, where you realize that you need to stop and repair before you proceed. Or where you realize you’ve gone down the wrong track, and you have to retrace your steps to achieve what you set out to do.

It helps to provide some structure for your experts, though. ‘Messy realities’ and ‘sausage-making’ can mean many different things, so you won’t necessarily get what you seek in asking for that. It may help to provide what seems like a straightforward recipe for research design, and ask them to speak to how their research process navigated those steps. If your experts are like my brilliant and genuine colleagues, that will motivate them to uncover the many ways that things don’t go as planned, but nevertheless get you somewhere good.

Hearing from experts can take the form of guest lectures in a course. If there’s no such course, you might start one, even as a student. Or you can organize a series of student-led brown-bag seminars with professors (and maybe some graduating students or alumni).

Over the span of the posts in this series, I'm going to share my own messy realities and some of my colleagues' (with permission, of course), which pertain to the various weeks of the course. For the big picture, though, students were struck by the messy realities of our paths to our present. This was true not just for me (figure above), but also for Gunilla Öberg, who spoke of her transformation from environmental chlorine chemist to interdisciplinary scholar scrutinizing contrasting beliefs and ideological blinders associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals and sustainable sewage management (or "poo and pee as resources").

It helps to unveil the messy realities of research, even if to guard against the imposter syndrome. What false starts and dead-ends have you encountered on your way? Please comment below—that is, if you don’t mind sharing with strangers in this fully public forum….

Next up: How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

The Intro to this series (with links to the full set)

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.

1 comment:

  1. My preferred metaphor is research is like building a cathedral. Most academic talks depict a flawless cathedral of a research project, without going into how the first foundation may have crumbled or a supporting buttress collapsed midway through necessitating a complete re-design of the project. I read about this in the book Designing Social Inquiry, which I recommend to aspiring social scientists.