Am I a normal newbie researcher or a horrible one?
March 25, 2012 2:20 PM   Subscribe

How do you begin academic research? I'm abroad, trying to build connections, but I'm falling apart—what exactly does 'research' entail and how do I go about starting it? Expanded dumb confusion inside.

Vague relevant details: I'm undergrad, have accumulated a significant amount of knowledge of the research area(s) I'm looking at, and I'm already abroad and whatnot. I've been here two months. I have an interesting internship and I'm (arguably) looking towards the right places and people to build up connections, but here's the stupid part—I have no idea how I'm supposed to start this. How do I approach people for interviews? I think my IRB course traumatized me and now I feel like asking people directly for interviews or conversation is sort of inherently exploitative, especially because I'm interested in working with a vulnerable population (refugees). I also desperately want to narrow my research topic but I'm failing completely at it. Everything sounds interesting to me but I also want my work to be somewhat novel and more importantly relevant.

I know I should ideally turn to my advisor for help—he's been an awesome, generally helpful person but I think he's slammed with work and I feel terrible demanding more of his time, plus I'm helplessly bad at communicating via e-mail but would feel way too awkward asking for a phone call/Skype or anything else more direct. I'm also beginning to feel like a failure the longer I'm here and am sort of avoiding him because I feel like the worst advisee of all time, especially because I've been a very good student so far and I feel like he must resent me for being a screw-up.

I know this is undergrad research and I shouldn't kill myself over it, but I'm also feeling pressure to get my act together so I can apply for more intense research for post-graduation, and right now that is just completely overwhelming and I feel like I'm the most completely incompetent person for this. Am I completely in over my head and should I just give up? Or is this a normal part of beginning an academic project? Does anyone have any advice on how to proceed?
posted by Papagayo to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you are in the social sciences or psychology, is that true? Defining your field will help you get answers.
posted by fake at 2:28 PM on March 25, 2012

Response by poster: Sorry, yes, I'm social sciences! Anthropology, to be specific.
posted by Papagayo at 2:31 PM on March 25, 2012

You are fine. This is normal. Usually when you're doing this sort of research you have a question or a topic you're looking into. And often writing about it entails not just going over what people before you have written about this topic [a literature review] but some of your own research into this question using your own thought-up question. It is absolutely okay for you to talk to your advisor if you are still coming up with your own question. If you already have a question and are trying to figure out how to go about it, you might want to talk to your college/university's librarian just to chit chat about it because they may not only have some good ideas, but will also have some "this is a good place to get started" advice.

Optimally, you set your course with your advisor and then your librarian can help you with the actual data gathering if it comes from sources. Your advisor would need to help you with data gathering if it's going to come from people [i.e. interviews and speaking to them]. This is also useful because then you can get a good idea about whether the scope of your topic is too much, too little, or just about right. These are things that you are supposed to be working on with other people [i.e. people in your department, if not your advisor then some other professor in your area] you're not expected to just go out and figure it all our on your own. You might also gain some peace of mind talking to other students in your program about what they've been up to and how it worked for them because they'd have more experience with the specific school that you are at.

So, make an appointment with your advisor in person or over the phone if possible and have a short list of questions.

- I am interested in this topic and I'd like to answer this question. Does that sound decent in scope?
- I am thinking I will need to research it like this. Can you give me some suggestions on how to get started?
- How often should I be checking in with you to make sure this is all going okay. What sort of progress timeline do you think would work?

Or a few questions similar to those. My research in college and grad school was a sort of series of these interactions with my advisor where we'd check in every so often to make sure I was on track and for him to answer questions. This is their job. If you're feeling weird about contacting yours you may need to just power through that, or find one who seems more accessible. So, to restate: you are fine, this is normal, you are not expected to be adrift as you go through this.
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on March 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Am I completely in over my head


and should I just give up?

Absolutely not.

As an undergrad, you shouldn't be told to "do research" and then left to your own devices. You need to take a deep breath and send your advisor an email asking for help.

Say "Hi Dr Whozzit, I'm having some trouble getting started and feel like I'm spinning my wheels a bit here. Can you give me some advice?" Think of some questions you have and list them in point form so they're easy to parse and answer. If you have a general idea of how you want to proceed but aren't sure if you're on the right track, lay out your thoughts in detail and ask if they make sense to your advisor.

Do not feel bad taking up his time. When he accepted you as a student he committed to helping you complete your research.

Asking for help might be the most important skill you can learn in academics.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 2:37 PM on March 25, 2012

I would make sure to check out the academic calendar for your University and then go to any seminars that interest you. Bonus points if you ask questions and talk to the presenter afterwards.

Also, sign up for Mendeley and start sorting the research/papers you've collected into collections based on interest. The biggest collection is the winner and just go from there.
posted by melissam at 2:41 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

If Amman is your current location, this might be a long shot (in terms of getting hold of the book), but you might find Nigel Barley's book The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes From a Mud Hut useful. Barley wrote it as the book that talks about everything that did not make it into his formal ethnography. It's a stitch, too. If you can't get it in Amman, put it on your reading list for when you get back.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:43 PM on March 25, 2012

If you absolutely cant turn to your advisor for help, see if you can find a good informant at your internship. This will be someone who understands the local culture and is experienced at navigating it. Then, ask this person for help regarding how to recruit informants, what is ethical and so on. Maybe ask them to find you someone willing to talk. If you're feeling like there are power differentials involved, its best to recruit indirectly - get the word out that you're looking to talk to people, and see who turns up.

If you dont have a defined research question yet, thats ok. You probably do have some idea what kinds of topics you're interested in. If you're at a loss for what to ask, it's good to start with a few broad based, life history style interview. Sit people down, and ask them "tell me about your life?" Then listen. Take copious notes. If they allow you to, record the interview. Obviously, make sure to obscure identifying information (name etc) in your notes. Once you have a few of these, some themes might emerge.

Dont worry too much about how the research you are doing will connect with post-grad research. Start gathering some data, and that should help you narrow things down.
posted by MFZ at 2:47 PM on March 25, 2012

You need to email your supervisor and ask for a supervision meeting to give you some guidance. Get something in his diary asap. Students not keeping up with work and then not feeling they can ask because they are too far behind is a leading cause of people screwing up what should have been a good grade for an UG dissertation. Email him NOW. Set out a bit of the worry if you like but if he's anything like me he will not be bothered and will just schedule a time if requested.

If you want to interview specific individuals you should call them, explain what you are doing and ask to interview them, setting out how it would work (face to face, phone, etc). If you send emails you will be ignored.
posted by biffa at 2:57 PM on March 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You need to talk to your advisor.

But I think it is normal to be overwhelmed and shy when doing fieldwork. There are two things that I think help: the first is to try to "channel" someone you know who is confident and outgoing and good at research. Your advisor maybe, or some other student. Pretend to yourself that you are in a play and are playing their role. Ask yourself "what would X do next?" It's silly, but I find it helps.

The other is to ask for interviews right away when meeting someone relevant. If you leave it and plan to come back to them, it's scary. But probably you get introduced to them as "This is Papagayo. He/she is doing some research here." or "is a visiting researcher from ..." or "is working on a thesis about refugees." When the person expresses interest, you probably have a temptation to change the subject, or to ask about them, or they might ask about your life back home. Instead of this, say something like, "Yes, my research is on [TOPIC]. In fact, you are the sort of person I'd really like to interview. Would you be interested in participating?" or if they aren't relevant but might know someone who is, "Yes, my research is on [TOPIC]. I'm trying to interview people about [BLAH]. Do you know anyone who might be interested in participating?"

The earlier you set these things up, the less weird it is. Somehow I feel less exploitative setting up interviews right up front, because my target community never has to wonder about what my goals and plans are, or whether I am just sneaking around taking notes unexpectedly. (Of course, I kind of am, but whatever).

I'm in linguistics, by the way, but I gather there's a lot of overlap with anthropology fieldwork.
posted by lollusc at 3:45 PM on March 25, 2012

Is this cultural anthropology? - If so, what sort of research questions in general are you interested in? - They don't have to be formal ones. What intrigues you?

Anthropology is a complex research area to think about. In the end, it's not so much about interviewing and so on (although you do interview), as putting your data together to understand what a culture is about.

So if you are an interested undergrad, I would recommend that you ask an advisor for some books to get you started.

In terms of background, the Oxford A Very Short Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology is good.

John van Maanen's Tales of the Field is also a good overview, even though it is ostensibly about writing.

There are a ton of methods books out there, you can ask methods instructors in anthro and also sociology for their recommendations.

Then, you need to put it all together. The best way to do this is by reading articles and books (anthropology as a discipline puts a lot of emphasis on book-length research). Again, ask your advisor for recommendations for monographs, maybe in areas that you are interested in. If you let me know what areas you are interested in, I can maybe make a recommendation or two. You need to see what published research looks like.

Really, ask your advisor - print this question out, and show it to him.
posted by carter at 4:29 PM on March 25, 2012

You've gotten some good advice above. I'd like to add a general comment about research. My apologies if my comments seem obvious, or too abstract!

You can think of anthropology, or any field, as a set of conversations. In these (interrelated) discussions, academics respond to/add to/correct/disprove/support/etc. each other's positions. Even as a junior researcher, your task is to add something to these conversations. In order to do this, you're going to have to find out what's already been said by others. Very rarely, someone will start a new conversation on a new topic -- but even then, he or she will have to have to explain to everyone why this new topic is worth discussing. More often, your research project will be a way of saying:
"Okay, I've read what a certain number of you have to say about X topic, and I think something's missing. Let me summarize the conversation as I see it, and then explain why my intervention is relevant and necessary."

You have to broadly survey the field to find out which conversations interest you, and then, of these, find out which one seems most compelling or important at the moment. Let yourself give up lots of interesting questions: it's only for the moment, and only for this particular project. You can address these other interests in future study.

Pick an area and read a lot. Yes, this will take time. Keep notes about what people have said, who they're responding to, and how their ideas relate. Eventually, you will come to see disagreements and areas of uncertainty. If you're really lucky, you will find something that's been wholly overlooked in the conversation.
Start digging. Most of the time, once you look for information about the omission, you'll find that someone has already come up with what you want to say (boo! but it means that you're on the right track!). Maybe pick a smaller thing to work on - a clarification, or a question.

Your worry about research being exploitative should make you feel relieved - you are attentive to the ethics of what you're involved in. Let it guide you. Only ask questions of your subjects when the answers will be statements -- keys -- that deserve to be part of the greater conversation. You're researching to create change in the world: hopefully what you will see is that the discussions academics have are, in the end, all the same conversation. How can we -- as researchers, as people, as a society -- do better? Imagine what you, personally, will need to learn in order to answer this question, and study that.

Less philosophically and more pragmatically: contact your supervisor; contact your discipline's librarian, and spend an afternoon researching the other support services available to you: does your school have a writing centre? An academic support centre? What is available to you online and abroad? Find out who can offer suport in addition to your supervisor.
posted by Edna Million at 6:24 PM on March 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks a ton to all of you, I'm not sure what to mark best answer! I have been contacting my advisor, but he's been almost completely unresponsive since I've been abroad, which from my previous experience is uncharacteristic (thus my feeling that he is just way too busy). I should also note that my school is too small to switch advisors (and that process would be impossible from abroad anyway). I'll give him another couple of weeks before I despair.
I actually feel that I have a relatively solid question or two guiding my research, but again, I feel guilty over exploiting the populations I'm working with (my primary interests are displaced populations and gender violence--really ethical territory right there) and although my internship is interesting I have even less support from my supervisor here than my academic advisor. I'll try to scout out other connections and try to be a little more vocal about the fact that I'm doing research--I notice now that I've only been introducing myself as an intern at (X), without letting people know that I'm also doing research or that I intend to continue doing research and work in this region following graduation (maybe I'm coming off as yet another young foreigner partying around with no real commitment to this country). Thanks so much!
posted by Papagayo at 12:18 AM on March 26, 2012

I notice now that I've only been introducing myself as an intern at (X), without letting people know that I'm also doing research or that I intend to continue doing research and work in this region following graduation (maybe I'm coming off as yet another young foreigner partying around with no real commitment to this country)

I tell my students to introduce themselves as 'Researcher from X university' regardless of their level.
posted by biffa at 5:00 AM on March 26, 2012

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