What Drives Your Research?
April 10, 2014 09:00 AM
by Brent Gibbons, Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research
As we are closing in on APPAM’s deadline for submissions to the 2014 Fall Research Conference, take a moment to reflect on what motivates you to go the extra mile in your research. It’s my experience that it usually takes an extra mile, and probably two, to bring that abstract, presentation, or paper to completion. In those moments, when perhaps the last thing you want to do is revisit a particular piece of research, what pushes you to go ahead and try to make it even better?
Now from an economic perspective, this is purely a question of what is to be gained from such an improvement at the margin, so to speak, for the person. We can frame the question in terms of individual utility and the cost of the extra effort. This begins to sound like any sort of altruistic intention is ruled out, but this need not be true. Motivations that are good for others can still exist when a person recognizes this as also being in one’s self-interest. But we can ask questions like is it to push my career forward as a researcher; Is it my desire to figure out problems or a genuine curiosity; or is it something more vain like seeing your name on a publication?
From a political science perspective, we can think of how we expect our research to have an influence. We can choose to put more energy into research that is politically relevant or into areas that provide a greater chance of being funded. This is practical and often a necessary part of research and congruent with the economic perspective. A less defensible motivation is to craft research to support a particular ideology or previously established policy position. This is getting away from what motivates that extra effort to asking what motivates our research in general, though it still may apply in those extra mile moments.
So we have looked at two of our three sacred policy components; what then about sociology? Sociology would look at community norms and ask about group forces. What kinds of community norms are there for research in our institutions and how are these cultivated? These are complex systems including academia, government and private or non-profit research standards as well as societal values that support research funding. There are the relationships between colleagues, the value of group acceptance and the influence of mentors.
And you thought this was going to be a surface level motivational piece.
Well maybe it is. Being clear about your own motivations allows you to better draw on those resources and I would argue to make better decisions about how to use your limited resources, your time and energy. It’s also a helpful exercise for making choices regarding future directions in your research. You have to be honest with yourself for it to be effective, even if it means admitting less attractive motivations; hey, we all have them.
Thinking about a recent manuscript I needed to wrap up and send off to a journal, issues kept emerging, forcing me to re-assess the results, the analysis, and ultimately the conclusions. This was my second or probably third draft, with my second or probably third set of tables and yet it didn’t feel closer to being done. I can hear more seasoned researchers out there grunting and mumbling to themselves that ‘yes, this is the nature of the business.’ Fair enough, there will always be more questions. But we each have to grapple with that question of what is good enough.
On this paper, there was the added pressure of having novel results that in some cases contradicted previous research. It is in my primary research area, mental health policy, in which I am also an advocate. I wondered if having these different hats could somehow unconsciously bias my research. I realized though that having the strongest most objective research is the best form of advocacy anyway, in a research capacity. This way of thinking was what gave me the extra push I needed to get to the finish line.
So find what works for you and get back to your abstracts, papers, or presentations!