Breaking into a Research mindset
October 25, 2011 2:18 PM   Subscribe

How should I get involved in doing my own research?

I am a candidate in a California teaching program. My goal is to get a Masters in Technology, Math, and Science Education, and perhaps go even further in the future than that.

Having been through the rounds at my old college, I now know (a little too late) that research is one of the biggest and best things that a person can get involved with in order to become a good graduate candidate.

I have been working at trying to break into research, but I'm having problems knowing where to start, how to set up a schedule, or do anything whatsoever!

I've been reading books mostly to get my information such as Turabian, the Craft of Research, and various action and educational research books.

I do not really have any advisor for my research, because I asked around, and my college (for my teaching program) doesn't have any professors in the Teacher Education Department that are currently actively doing research. It's a lower tier public college that does not involve itself heavily in research unlike my undergraduate college.

I really want to do research, but I'm wondering how I can break into it! To be honest, my focus right now isn't research, because I'm simply doing the best I can to become a great teacher, as well as doing a bunch of other extra-curriculars and side-jobs, but I'm wondering if I could do research simultaneously.

If I really need to devote a lot more time to research, I'm not planning on going for my master's for a few years yet, so I will have time to complete it when I'm not running around trying to get credentialed as a teacher.
posted by Peregrin5 to Education (10 answers total)
Can you elaborate what kind of research experience you want? Bench? Animal? Human subjects? Literature searches? Meta-analyses?

"Research" is an incredibly broad thing to want to do, and it's near impossible without someone with a lot of experience (i.e., an advisor) directing and helping you. It's even harder if you're not a student taking classes who can ask his instructors for research experience.

You need to find a subject you want to study and get a full-time staff research assistant position with a professor at a university working on that subject. To get the job, you just need to prove that you're willing to learn the subject inside and out; most new RAs start from the ground floor anyway, so having a bachelor's in something else isn't a huge strike against you. My own boss looks kindly on people who work in his lab on a volunteer basis at first, eventually moving into full-time salaried positions.

Any large university will have a jobs site where you can search for open RA positions.
posted by supercres at 2:43 PM on October 25, 2011

I'm not entirely certain these really address your interest but here's some baby-steps you can take towards hooking yourself up with a professor (like before the steps supercres goes into):

Are you in a classroom right now (even as a student teacher)? Does that school have a professional development program they are implementing? Lots of those prof. dev. groups encourage teachers to do their own action research in their own classrooms. They won't be perfect studies but you'll get some practice doing research, you'll learn a bunch about how your students learn, and lots of times the pd program may even publish a newsletter and be willing to include your informal study. That might give you a foot in the door or a way to say to someone who is doing research "Man - I loved doing XYZ in my classroom. I'm really interested in learning how to do better research." Even if you never try to publicize what you do, do lots of little labs and document them so you can show them to people you'd eventually like to do research with.

If you have your own classroom, check out other universities or grant programs and see if they have any research studies going on that your population might work with. You never know, they may want an other classroom of data. Being in a study might be illuminating and may help you make connections. Plus it will again let you focus on becoming a great teacher.

Can you take a class on research methods at a different school? There may even be classes you can take online about it. That will help you get started. Along those same lines, have you taken statistics?

Finally, are you reading journals with educational research in them? Like reading them a lot? You can read all the books in the world about how to do research but it's helpful to see what is included in published research and to also read the discourse that goes on about the study afterwards.
posted by adorap0621 at 2:53 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd be doing education research, particularly, in math, science, and technology. I have some ideas for research prospects (study skills, internet productivity, and inquiry-based instruction), but don't really know how to begin.

I will definitely start looking for volunteer opportunities and RA positions! Once I become a teacher, I assume that my resources (students) will be attractive to most professional education researchers.
posted by Peregrin5 at 2:56 PM on October 25, 2011

You'll want to read up on IRB (Institutional Review Board) policies for human subjects research. There are pretty strict controls on what you can and can't do with minors, so it's very unlikely your future students would be a resource for anyone's research.
posted by MsMolly at 3:00 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't do research on your own. Don't study your students without someone with research experience looking over your shoulder. You want to be an RA for the type of people that you'd be learning from in grad school. I don't know anything about education research, but that's the general goal: make connections and learn the field.

Sounds like your loftiest possible end goal would be to have a doctorate in education. Find a university that has a graduate school of education and get in touch with the professors there. Don't be put off if you don't get responses, but don't be annoying; if they're reasonably successful academics, they'll get tons of "cold calls" (or e-mails) like this.

Or, better yet, go through the university's HR site and filter by GSE, and also by professional research positions if you can. This is an example job description from my own university (though it's a more-experienced position than you'll be looking for):
...assist researchers with all stages of research and writing , communications with partners and affiliated organizations, and preparation of reports; participate in team research projects; responsible for project management, including coordinating research with other researchers; maintain project databases; conduct research (including field data collection, survey design, producing case studies, analysis and report writing); supervise support staff, part-time employees and research assistants; plan meetings with research partners and for dissemination of findings; project development (including writing and coordinating proposal components); represent at meetings and conferences. Some research experience and knowledge of basic statistical analysis needed.

This position will require limited travel. Participate in and facilitate team design of research studies, analyses, and write ups. Collect field data through interviewing, classroom observation, and other techniques. May include designing data collection instruments such as interview protocols and observation tools; conducting analyses of datasets with qualitative and quantitative research software; and report writing. Entails some client management and staff supervision. Contingent upon continued funding.
posted by supercres at 3:05 PM on October 25, 2011

Yeah you can't just "do" human subjects research, you need to get legal approval from an IRB at the institution you're affiliated with, and follow strict laws about how the research is conducted and how the participants are treated.

Your best bet is to start emailing people at other institutions and explaining your interest and asking if they might have space for you. Research positions are often not advertised so much as given to people who express interest, so be that person.
posted by brainmouse at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2011

A lot of the answers above are jumping the gun a bit. You're considering doing a research degree in a few years, but the answers are talking about things that (a) you'll have to deal with after you start, and (b) will be well-understood and covered by your ethics committee when you come to do it.

Step 1: Literature review. Start that now.

I know nothing about educational research, but the basics of all research are … well, the basics:
  1. Pick a few broad areas that interest you, and you suspect are not well-covered.
  2. Find review papers that summarise the knowledge & current developments in those areas.
  3. Use those papers to narrow down and identify "knowledge gaps" (I kinda hate that term); specific areas that need further research. Ideally, the review papers will list a bunch of those at the end of the discussion.
  4. Pick one, or a couple of related ones, of those that particularly interest you.
  5. Keep across those specific lines of research until you're ready to start your postgrad.
  6. Rinse and repeat, as others will have done the same thing and been working on filling those gaps while you've been waiting to start.
By the time you're ready to start you'll have a good understand of where the holes are, how to go about filling them, and ready to hit the ground running. Potential supervisors will love you, because you've just saved them a lot of work ;-)
posted by Pinback at 4:58 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sent you a memail.

Educational research isn't that different from other graduate research. In my experience, you sit in classrooms and collect data, you survey/meet with students/teachers/administrators, and you analyse that data.

You need to isolate a research focus before starting, obviously, and doing some observations of a variety of classes would be a good starting point.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:02 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I hate to keep piping up just to say, "Yeah, but..." BUT the people you should be asking this are people in the field you want to be in! It's so much easier to talk to people with decades of research experience about the field than to try to glean information about the field from journals that are meant for people with decades of research experience.

(The ethics points mentioned above were really just warnings about being too independent -- recklessly independent -- in starting to do research.)

Find someone whose career path is intriguing to you. Better yet, multiple people. Introduce yourself. Academics love young, eager minds-- especially academics who study education, I bet. Once academics get to a certain stage in their respective careers, their focus switches from pure self-promotion to self-promotion by creating a legacy, i.e., having successful students. Convince them that you could be one of those students and good professors will help you immensely.

A good mentor (especially one who may end up advising your research) is incalculably more valuable than reading journal articles.
posted by supercres at 5:54 PM on October 25, 2011

I tend to suggest the inverse of several of the above posters, in that excessively narrow research interests before you have any real experience can cause students to make bad mentoring decisions. Look at the what-I'm-researching-now page of a research focused department, and see which are vaguely appealing. After that you need to see which mentors are the best personal / style fit (talk to colleagues!), and who has projects which could use someone like you. It's important that you're interested in the research you do, but exactly where your project ends up is so unpredictable that using particular topics as a selector doesn't work well. Before you are deep into the topic most students do not understand why the data which different research teams can generate are more or less promising.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:05 AM on October 26, 2011

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