Rat Race: How to Pick Your Research Projects-Part 1

I haven’t done a Rat Race post in so long, and I apologize for that. I’m pulling the “grad student life” out of the title, as I’m no longer a grad student (Yay!), but I still want to discuss some professional themes, including student and nonstudent issues. If you look back through my old Rat Race posts you’ll see I’ve covered getting involved, either with your institution or your field, and the importance of having a life outside of academia and professional pursuits.

This time I’m going to talk about choosing a research subject and your collaborators. I’m splitting this into two posts: one about picking a topic, and one about picking projects. Here is Part 1 on picking a topic:

Kat discussed this briefly in a post on her personal blog. Research is such a fundamental part of the professions and passions of Worn Through readers, it seems like something that cannot be addressed enough.

Some tips for picking a research topic:

  • Always pick something realistic–  I had to go back to the drawing board halfway through my masters because I realize how over-my-head my chosen topic was and that it’d take forever to finish among other problems.
  • Always pick something you can stick with for a while. Especially if it’s something you plan on speaking about, publishing, and/or doing as a thesis. It’s amazing how long it all drags out, even with rewrites etc.
  • Realize how little funding is truly out there. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but this is mostly going to be on your dime, in conjunction with a few grants if you’re savvy about applications, so figure out how much you can allot and what research is within those parameters, or, how to do “big” research on a realistic budget. The worst is having to abandon a project for lack of funding.
  • RE: Above–Realize how to work the system, though, to get any funding you can. Look everywhere!
  • Try to vary your subject matter, but try to become an expert. This is a tough one and it’s where collaborative work comes in. If you work with others you might be able to dabble more in varied subject matter, practicing your research skills as much as focusing on an area of expertise. Then bring that refined skillset back to your area of passion.

This is my personal opinion, and has been the talk of many ethnography and related classes I’ve taken — but be realistic about how good a job you can do researching this subject. How much bias are you going to put in?  Is your bias useful or a hinderance? If it is too much it could reach a point where the you cannot be objective, but, if you’re too much of an outsider are you judging unknowingly, analyzing out of ignorance and misinterpretation, or are you flat out guessing? Be honest with yourself about how connected you are to this material and whether you feel you can give it a legitimate evaluation that is a valuable addition to the body of literature on the topic.

Pick something you can get a lot of mileage out of: Various papers, publications, speaking engagements, blog posts etc. Choose something with depth and breadth. There is no point in spending all that time on a one-trick pony that is tired after one poster. Once you’ve gone thorugh all of the trouble of passing IRB, doing the fun but laborious surveys/interviews/case studies/experiments, etc, and the grueling but rewarding analyzing of the research (not to mention that in between step for interviews of transcription!), you of course want to make the most of this time you’ve spent. It takes the same amount of time up front, so you may as well get a lot of use out of your efforts.

*Thank you to our Intern Brenna for helping me get this post in motion!

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