Notes from Talk with Dr. Grabill

Q: How do you learn how to do research?

Research can’t be learned about in a class. The only way to learn how to do research is to do research. There aren’t any formulas or processes that are foolproof.

At the same time, it’s entirely possible to due bad research. Good research is not an individual sport; it’s a team sport.

One important thing to consider is the differences between inductive and deductive research. In deductive research, you start with your questions. It’s like in a writing class when we ask students to start an essay with their thesis. But what if you don’t know what your thesis is? What if you don’t know what your questions are?

That’s why I’m a fan of starting mid-process and trying to figure out what you’re researching. Sometimes you just have to muck around and dwell and figure things out.

The middle way between these two is to pose some provisional problems or questions and then go through the process of planning how you might conduct an inquiry that will either solve that problem or answer that question.

Mucking around in this context can include: a period of spending time with people, dwelling with people, asking questions, reading things. The goal is that as you do this, problems/questions change and get clearer.

Then, in the second iteration of the project, after this mucking around, the project is a little bit cleaner. Your problems and questions are clearer.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges for researchers working a field like TPC that spans academic and industry contexts?

So, there are tensions between industry and academy; there are disconnects. Industry doesn’t always know what they want; academics don’t always want to respond to industry realities.

I advise novice researchers to try to solve really hard problems. That’s what compelling research does. Try to make the lives of people you care about better. Who are your people, meaning what discipline or context are you part of? What are the really hard problems that “my people” are trying to solve.

Another approach is to think of research as action research. Start with a project in a particular space (workplace, community-based organization, etc.). Architect a research problem around that problem. What don’t we know? What do we need to understand?

Q: How do you know when you’re doing research vs. just doing work?

One answer to that question is technical: whether your institution understands your activity as research or not. Another is generalizability. There are often distinctions in a variety of disciplines between applied and traditional research. While the former is limited in scope and applies to one particular situation, the other is generalizable beyond that situation.

Here at MSU, we try to train our graduate students to think of themselves as researchers inside organizations. In that case, applied research isn’t all that different from generalizable research. What you’re doing isn’t all that different than what you’ve already done.

Another problem I see with a lot of novice researchers is that they don’t realize that research projects, theses, and dissertations are starting places and learning opportunities. They’re not giant things. They’re aggregations of smaller things. To tackle these larger projects, you can use a tactic familiar to anyone with experience in project management: break big things into little things. Do a bunch of little things day after day, week after week, and they add up to big things.

One other thing I’ve encouraged novice researchers to do to develop research plans is to conduct a pilot. Pick some preliminary methods and questions and then try them out with a small amount of data. Your experience of the project will then cause the project to shift.

The other thing I remind folks all the time is that almost universally: people feel they’re doing research wrong.

Q: Where do good research projects come from?

I believe that all work is a function of relationships. If you don’t attend to the relationship, you’re doing it wrong. Work that breaks relationships is bad work. So replace “work” with “research” and you have: research as a function of relationships. I have worked with people for six-years, helping them, getting to know them, and then research arose out of that relationship. This type of research takes a lot longer, a lot more mucking around, but it is often the most compelling research, and the most meaningful.

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