Work as a researcher? Asked yourself the big questions lately?

Often when you are working as a research consultant it’s hard to find the time to ask yourself the bigger questions. Technical questions are easy to come by (Is my sample size big enough? What analysis should I run on my data? Which journal should I submit this paper to?). However the bigger questions may rarely get addressed (What philosophy is my method based on? What does this method say about ‘how the world works’? Does it reflect how I see the world? What values do I bring into my working practice? Why do I work as a researcher?).

For me, asking myself the big questions is an essential part of my practice as a professional researcher. It shapes what I do, how I do it, who I choose to work with, and what I do with the results. My world view and values will shape my work – they will influence what I see as ‘data’, how I view my role as a researcher, and how I respond to both technical and ethical problems. By making the time to work through these issues I am making sure that I am aware of how these issues influence my work. In turn this awareness helps me to shape my work -  it is only by consciously knowing about my values and my views of the world that I can ensure that these are reflected in my work. This helps me to be a coherent researcher.  

Researcher or a technician? 

Technical expertise is an essential part of being a good researcher. You need to know how to use the tools of your trade – What does a good quasi-experiment look like? What is good practice when it comes to writing a survey? How do you deal with missing data? However, there is more to research than just method – a researcher is more than just a technician. Technicians know how to use tools (and they can be very skilled at using them) but researchers know why they use a particular tool, what the limitations of that tool is, and what that choice of tool says about their view of the world.  Technicians have method, researchers have methodology.

Want to make sure you are a researcher and not just a technician?

Great – this is great news for you, your employer/clients, your participants, and anyone who is impacted by your work. Of course becoming a researcher isn’t a technical skill – so neither I, nor anyone else can tell you how to do it. But maybe these tips are useful:

  • Find your own philosophy. This does not have to involve delving in to philosophical texts or using philosophical jargon – just spend some time having a think about how you view the world.
    • Is it a world where there are universal laws that govern our behaviour? If there are universal laws (or truths), are you successfully able to tap into these laws in your research? If there are not universal laws what is it that governs individual behaviour? 
    • What counts as data? What doesn’t count as data? Why? Does ‘data collection’ start when you press the record button during an interview? Did it start the moment you met your participant? Did it start  before then?
    • When a participant responds to one of our questions what is really happening? Are we successfully tapping into a ‘universal truth’ through their response? Is their response accurate, real, coherent, their own personal truth? Or is it largely influenced by the research situation, their personal response to you, or their desire to respond in a way that reflects how they would like to be? 
  • Explore your values
    • What impact do you want to have on your participants, society, clients, your peers?
    • What power do you hold over others? Who holds power over you? How do you respond to both of these?
    • To whom are you responsible and how to you respond to this responsibility? For example – if you feel you hold a wider responsibility to those people in society who are effected by your work how do you balance this with your responsibilities to your client/employer? 
  • Have a think about why you work as a researcher
    • Why do you do what you do? Did you fall into research, or have you always wanted to be a researcher? What are your motivations? Is there something else that you would rather do? Is your work life balance working for you? Personally I feel that one of our responsibilities as researchers is to make sure that we are looking after ourselves and looking after our peers. I know I do much better work when my work life balance has the right amount of balance for me. Can you start a peer-coaching programme in your workplace? Or join a scheme like the one offered by the Social Research Association?
  • You don’t have to do it on your own
    • If it all sounds a bit daunting to work through this on your own, work through it with a colleague. I find that I am much better at making the time for something if I arrange to do it with someone else. I also find it easier to think creatively when there are others around. You don’t need to find someone who shares your views – in fact – it can be really helpful to work through this with someone who sees the world very differently from you as it forces you to question (and defend) your assumptions.
  • It’s a process rather than a destination
    • I see myself as a work in progress – and I hope that it stays that way. If I ever get to the stage where I think I have all the answers it is probably time for me to do something else (ideally something that has less of an impact on other peoples’ lives). I find it useful to look at these questions on a regular basis – a helpful ‘check-in’ with myself – in my case often involving coffee, a blank piece of paper, and lots of coloured pens – but you might find a different way of working that is better for you.

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Independent research consultant Dr Nina Burrowes