Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Observations about Academic Research


Recently I completed a thesis for my M.A. in Intercultural Studies. Students in this program aren’t required to do a thesis; only a handful chose to do so (this term, just three). But I had a hunch that I’d learn more through a thesis than the alternative, a practicum/internship, and of course as a long-time researcher and writer I didn’t find the process as intimidating as others might. 

I’d read a few master’s theses and doctoral dissertations over the years and wondered how the authors managed to take the kind of content that might have been just enough to support a meaty magazine or newspaper feature article, or a 30-page chapter in a book, and stretch into a 150-200-page (and often rather boring) document. Why did they include such tiresome details about background and methods? Why did they do so little original research? For example, one friend’s ethnography-based master’s thesis came out of interviews with only half a dozen informants; at Caleb Project I was uncomfortable publishing ethnographies that had fewer than 100 interviews, and felt much better about the validity of the findings if there were 300 interviews and 100 informants.

Only after taking a seminar in academic research methods did I understand why things are the way they are. A lot of it has to do with peer review. If you don’t explain just why and how you did what you did, others can’t decide whether it is valid, discern how much it might apply they to what they are doing, or replicate your research to disprove or extend it. So it’s less like a magazine article, written to engage and inform, than a lab report: you have to show your work. All of it. And that may significantly reduce how much original work you are able to do.

Moreover, the persnickety attention to precedent research and designing the process really =can= allow an individual to produce work that is as valid (or more so) than more extensive research that can be done by a team but often uses more slapdash or inconsistent methods (depending on the training and skills of those doing the work). That lack of discipline always frustrated me working with research teams. Yet without the leverage provided by paying salaries or giving grades, I could never keep the standards up. I had to take what I could get. I’d still rather see more collaboration (and more data) in an academic paper, but I understand why it’s not there.

If, in the end, these papers are more “academic exercises,” showing you have the chops to do careful research and interpret it, than the kind of research other people are clamoring for that informs real-life decisions, that’s unfortunate; a casualty of the system. But it doesn’t happen every time.

I’ve also realized that the thesis is not the only outcome of the master’s or doctoral degree. Much more significant may be the level of mastery of the subject and related areas accomplished by the student/scholar (the fruit of all that precedent research, among other things). In that sense it’s not unlike what our son went through to become an Eagle Scout. I might tend to look at those Eagle Projects and think: big deal, you built a bench (or whatever); this is supposed to show us you’re a promising young man, the cream of the crop? What’s up with that?

Turns out, it’s not really about the bench. That’s just an application of your growth and development in many areas that got you to that point. It’s the capstone, not the chief outcome. It also demonstrates sacrifice and persistence: there are a lot of other things you had to give up to keep going on your path to that M.A., PhD, or Boy Scout rank. Just as you don’t just hire Eagle Scouts to build benches for your garden, don't only hire PhDs to teach about their dissertation topics; you expect them to be well rounded, have thought deeply, and be able to work with your students to pursue a variety of interests and areas.

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