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Techniques for Conducting Research More Efficiently

May 30, 2019 02:30 PM

By Sanya Carley, APPAM Treasurer

Conducting research with efficiency—along with having a thick skin and being a team player—is a key to success in academia. Here I outline some practices that I believe improve my efficiency, although I do so with a major caveat: what works for one person might be a terrible idea for another. I’ve read several books and Chronicle of Higher Education articles on how to be successful as an academic, and have found that I have a hard time taking others’ recommendations and fitting them into the context of my own experience, or my own set of expectations. So you too may read my list and think of my approach as foreign; and I am okay with that.
My main strategy in research is to study that which makes me feel personally fulfilled. Honestly, I do this mainly so that I can justify a profession that I told myself early on would help better society but, in the reality of day-to-day activities, means writing a whole bunch of papers that most people will probably never read. So it is fundamental to me to write papers that I believe are about particularly important and pressing issues, and to try offer recommendations that have the potential to make a difference. This may be a lofty goal but it keeps me always motivated to learn more, write more, and stretch myself.  In addition, when a topic has broader impact and is relevant to current events, I am motivated to get my ideas into the public space quickly, and not sit on data or let drafts get stale.
One of my research strategies is to prepare myself to write a paper on a topic well in advance of conducting the actual analysis. I liken this to studying for a final take home exam in advance of the assignment, rather than reading the exam questions and then studying those details that I know are all on the exam. I prepare by treating myself to browsing new journal articles that come out in some of my favorite journals, following new paper trails on topics of interest, and taking detailed notes on what I learn. I also never hesitate to pick up the phone or drop an email to a professional in the field who actively engages in a topic that I am researching, and soliciting their informed opinion about the topic. When it comes time to sit down and write about the topic, then the exercise becomes one of simply conveying what I have learned and connecting the dots across theories, ideas, and results, rather than fumbling around through new resources before writing each line.
An important factor in research success is the strength and flexibility of one’s research team. In composing a research team on a specific project, I seek out individuals that hold diverse strengths. Part of this diversity is one’s disciplinary perspective—I generally prefer interdisciplinary research teams—but here I am really emphasizing research and analysis strengths. For example, team members may contribute big picture and synthesizing across ideas kind of perspectives; greater attention to detail skills; an understanding of a topic in practice; visualization skills; or a strong craft for writing. Blending strengths, I believe, makes the full research process more efficient as well as more interesting.
I also invite students to join my research teams. I have found, however, that supervising students can sometimes be less efficient than simply doing the analysis on my own. The way that I try to manage this situation is to consider the mentee-mentor relationship as one of significant give and take. The “give” requires that I provide my students with new research design, methodological, or other research knowledge—this requires patience and several more weeks of exploratory time for the student than I would otherwise like, but with the end result of a motivated student (and one that is also excited to add a new skill to her/his resume). The “take” is the help that I receive from the student.
My last research strategy to maintain efficiency is most common tip that I have read elsewhere: block off dedicated research time. The best way that I am able to do this is to spend one day working from my home office and avoid scheduling any meetings during that time. I make sure to respond to all urgent emails before this weekly session and to restrict my focus to research—no teaching prep, no administrative responsibilities, only research.
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