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Insight into Academia

The Research Lifecycle

How many of you struggle with scientific research? Do you know why?

The premise of research is a search for knowledge, for understanding of the world around us and within ourselves. Researchers are curious, imaginative, creative; they love to learn and explore and discover; they love to solve problems and share their work and collaborate to tackle ever-bigger challenges. I am a researcher.

However, researchers must also understand the infrastructure of the science and engineering enterprise: the scientific method, external granting agencies, conference presentations, and peer-reviewed publications. Surprisingly, this enterprise is little-known to the general public and is never taught in schools, not even to fledgling researchers; there is an assumption that they will pick it up along the way: fledglings will either sink or swim. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out why, in educational institutions, the basic infrastructure on which the institution and all of the scientific enterprise operates is never explicitly taught.

Some people may be involved in a research-oriented environment for years and never really get the hang of it or understand the infrastructure. I’m one of these people: I’ve been involved with research since freshman year, first at ACIN and later as a researcher/admin for Drexel Smart House, but I still am not comfortable as I would like with scholarly research. I read journals for fun sometimes and debate them with peers and faculty, I learn about things, test them out myself and improve upon them, but still I struggle with framing my work in a context appropriate for scholarly research. And I think I finally understand my impediments to scholarly research: I think like an entrepreneur.

It’s all in how you frame the problem. Entrepreneurs ask, “how can I do X?” and then find a way to do it. It’s all-or-nothing; the idea will change and evolve, but they will iterate until either they find a satisfactory solution or give up. On the other hand, scholars motivate a problem and ask, “does this work for X?” whereby they frame a hypothesis, test it, and publish their results. It’s a different orientation, you see. A problem is framed independently by entrepreneurs, and by potential (partial) solutions by scholars. This is why negative results are still results in academia: an entrepreneur pushes the failure aside and tries something new, while a researcher documents the failure from which other researchers can learn and avoid repeating the same mistakes. This same reasoning is why research papers are so narrowly focused. The problems are too big for one person (or team of people) to tackle. These grand challenges are widely distributed so that each researcher assumes a tiny portion of the pie, and the portions overlap to ensure that the whole pie is covered and correct (in theory). In other words, the scientific infrastructure is designed to promote massive-scale collaboration in problem solving and advancing society’s knowledge.

I wish somebody would’ve shown me this when I first started research; it would’ve saved me a lot of trouble along the way.

What do you struggle with academically or with scholarly research? What impediments are blocking your path?

Posted in Ramblin' Thoughts.

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