What Great Research and Life Have in Common

Fork in the Road

Image: 80000hours.org

In short, it comes down to questions. I will likely draw critics for this one, but I take a very reductionist view when it comes to research as an idea. Designing research well is hard, performing the appropriate analysis to support your research question is usually even harder. Achieving publication of your completed research is harder still. Yet where great research is not hard is recognizing that it, just as with life, is about asking the right questions. In life we are fraught with such questions as whether we are in the right job, whether we are raising our kids well, and whether we are saving enough for retirement. All legitimate of course, and what continues to drive the market for self-improvement/personal success books (an avid fan myself I must admit) is the continued lesson that both framing and lens selection are among the keys to answering them. These texts, therefore and for a nominal price, offer methods for framing differently, and offer a lens which differs from the one currently employed whenever we seek to do better.

Success in research, just as with success in life, begins with asking the right questions. Since there is not a What Should I Do With My Life volume for research, here are a few questions to consider as you embark on your next research project:

What Keeps Me Up at Night? Palmer and Zajonc (2010) in their text The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal quote Whitehead who states, “We must be aware of what I will call ‘inert ideas’ – that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations… Education with inert ideas is not only useless; it is, above all things, harmful” (p. 58). Research is a process endeavored by few, yet needed by many. Research pushes our society further, answers those important questions, and gives rise to collectively educating the curious. Yet that process is wasted when on questions of low utility, or those meant solely to serve an end such as publication in itself. A dissertation which simply sits on a shelf, an article written only to be quoted by its author, research performed amid an absence of passion indeed generates inert ideas.

What Can I Talk About, Endlessly? Great research takes time, massive amounts of forethought, a healthy dose of metacognition, and elbow grease. We must dig into the existing literature to such an extent that not only do we understand the relative, ongoing theoretical conversation to-date, yet we must also feel comfortable contributing to its furtherance. Where this becomes a problem is when we recognize there is not one correct and finite way to go about this. As Dane (2011) describes in Evaluating Research, “For any particular theory, the number of ways in which a concept may be operationalized is limited only by the imagination of the researcher” (p. 22). This means not only can the very same concept be represented in myriad ways utilizing myriad methods, this also means that our curiosity in a topic cannot be short-lived or our exploration of it will be poorly served. Where inert ideas asks that we identify a source of passion, Dane reminds us we must also be willing to show great amounts of stamina in order to produce equally great research.

What Do Other People Need? As students of research, both at the Master’s and Doctoral level, we are told when first striving to identify a research topic that we must identify something meaningful to us and explore it. This, I feel is only one third of a very critical equation. As mentioned above another facet is to identify the existing conversation in the literature around a topic, and pinpoint where furtherance can be achieved. The final coefficient to this equation, however, has to do with the audience. As Booth, Colomb, and Williams (2008) note in The Craft of Research, “Down the road, you’ll be expected to find (or create) a community of readers who not only share an interest in your topic (or can be convinced to), but also have questions about it you can answer” (p. 19). This gives rise to the consideration for what problems can be solved for others, what questions can be answered for others, and what good your research can do for others. Great research needn’t be solely about a transparent journey into the center of you, it should also serve a purpose outside of the self, and serve a vested audience.

How Can I Help Them? We are not all researchers comfortable with every design available. Some of us prefer quantitative, some qualitative, some mixed methods. When considering the above on operationalization, as well as the furtherance of an existing scholarly exchange, we also have the opportunity to decide from among the designs possible which will ensure the largest captive, receptive audience as appropriate. As noted by the famed methodologist John Creswell (2009) in Research Design, “researchers write for audiences that will accept their research. These audiences may be journal editors, journal readers, graduate committees, conference attendees, or colleagues in the field… The experiences of these audiences with quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods studies can shape the decision made about this choice” (p. 19). This becomes a task at not only knowing your audience, it also means a task in understanding what design will be most helpful, as it will equally be the design which brings the learning curve down to near non-existence among your readership.

Again, I recognize I am taking a highly reductionist view. I hope those of you who see this as such also recognize this is meant to be a primer alone. These words certainly do not reflect all one should consider when beginning a research project. What this does represent, though, is a list of things to consider to get you on a productive path. A path toward enlightenment, toward understanding, and one well-trodden by those who were just as curious about the world around them. Hopefully, and if you’re lucky, it will also be a path which only leads to more questions.

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. G., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Dane, F. C. (2011). Evaluating research: Methodology for people who need to read research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Palmer, P. J. & Zajonc, A. (2010). The heart of higher education: A call to renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

About the Author:

Senior decision support analyst for Healthways, and current adjunct faculty member for Grand Canyon University, South University, and Walden University, Dr. Barclay is a multi-method researcher, institutional assessor, and program evaluator.  His work seeks to identify those insights from among enterprise data which are critical to sustaining an organization’s ability to complete. That work spans the higher education, government, nonprofit, and corporate sectors. His current research is in the areas of employee engagement, faculty engagement, factors affecting self-efficacy, and teaching in higher education with a focus on online instruction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s