Not intelligent enough to become a social researcher?
February 16, 2015 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Lately, I have seem to have doubts about my intelligence; particularly with the notion of becoming a social researcher. I have always wanted to explore the field of social research. I have a penchant for learning new knowledge and theories; my curiosity never seems to wane. However, I have little confidence that I'm able to obtain a Master's Degree in Critical Sociology. I need to build my confidence and reassure myself that I have the capability, passion, devotion, and worth ethic to learn and strive towards this career goal. I would be most appreciated for some scope of advice, tips, and encouragement.

I'm currently enrolled in the Sociology undergraduate programme in Ontario, climbing into my third year. I have a knack for researching versatile subjects; particularly within the scope of sociological issues surrounding social justice issues. I would love to materialize this into a career as a social researcher; however, I do not think I have the stamina and credentials for a favored candidate. I can be a slow learner at times, thoroughly reading assignments methodically to make sure I do not miss important key points. I do enjoy seminars immensely; sharing my political opinions. I also enjoy writing academic essays and writing short stories and poetry in general as well.

Is it plausible to be a slower learner and still be qualified to become a social researcher? I'm only a part-time university student, which may stifle my time and progress. Are there any other professions that parallel with social research? Or simply researching in general? I do know that it is very unlikely I will be able to find a sustainable occupation in this field, due to the narrowing and scarce job sector with the current economy and recession. I can imagine the availability of this profession is rather slim. I simply do not think I have the stamina or time to complete a PhD. I believe it is plausible to become a social researcher with the credibility of a master's degree, though I could be mistaken.

I feel lost with my career map. I truly enjoy researching, analyzing, reading, debating, learning, and writing. I simply cannot picture doing much else, except becoming a librarian, an author, or a book editor, if that. I could truly use some supportive advice and suggestions; I'm open to a critical discussion. If you have had this experience in the past, please share your thoughts. I need to build and gain confidence that I'm intelligent enough to achieve this career goal. I'm not the most cultured intellect; I do not have the sharpest memory with statistics, but I do love to analyze and learn. Sometimes learning about social theorist is difficult to grasp, but I do adore learning. I know that academia has shifted to a bureaucratic enterprise, which may make researching scarce and difficult -- not to mention the fact that most researchers and professors live in the age of credentialization, meritocracy, and compulsory research publishing.
posted by RearWindow to Education (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're fine. Being methodical is a great thing. You might look into qualitative work as it is slow moving and requires a lot of deep thought.

You may also look into imposter syndrome. This is something nearly everyone in the academy suffers from - I think it's a necessary part of being a critical thinker: knowing your weaknesses. I am an academic in the social sciences and I constantly worry that I will be exposed as a fraud, but in reality I am really good at what I do. At least employers and funding agencies and journals think so, which says a lot in science these days. And I work hard and I know on some level that my feelings that I am bad at this are normal and in some ways good because they keep me honest as a researcher.

I know many methodical PhD students and faculty in the social sciences and they are very successful. Don't discount yourself because you are a slow and methodical researcher. This is a good thing. Too many scholars do their work as quick and dirty flashes to get published and to move ahead. The academy needs people like you.
posted by sockermom at 6:13 PM on February 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


Once you're past a relatively low threshold of intelligence (for values of intelligence meaning the ability to learn and communicate what you have learned to others in a way that others can understand) then intelligence rarely has anything to do with it at all. It's all about hard work. Are you a hard worker? It seems like you are, and you have the motivation to continue being one in the same field long enough to contribute a great deal of value.

I know so many crackingly intelligent people, I'm related to them and by some standards I am one. I went to school with them and have been surrounded by "genius" level IQ people my entire life. The smartest and most successful scientists I know (and I know a lot) are all in the less "intelligent" category. Certainly they're smart, but their achievements are built one on top of another. People who are super genius smart tend to get easily frustrated, or change course wildly in the middle of their careers and have to start from scratch, or have utterly no patience to play any academic games or deal with the minutiae of startups. You have an advantage over these people that they will never attain: you have learned patience, and learning new things will remain gratifying to you for much longer in the same field.

I think you can do it, and more importantly I think the world needs as many people like you as possible.
posted by Mizu at 6:22 PM on February 16, 2015 [13 favorites]


I have a master's and a Ph.D. The people in my program who weren't as smart as I am finished earlier and got better jobs.
posted by Peach at 6:37 PM on February 16, 2015 [11 favorites]


Yeah, seconding (thirding?) that it is more about hard work than flat-out intelligence. If you get good enough grades in undergraduate to get into a good graduate program, then you are smart enough.

The lack of confidence may be a bigger problem. You need to work on this as much as you can. Academic research is mostly about your ideas and results being shot down from as many angles as possible, as often as possible, and not always in a gentle way. That's supposedly a feature, not a bug, as it ensures published research is high quality. But you have to be pretty resilient to cope with the constant criticism.

Thirdly, you say you don't want to do a PhD. I am not in psychology myself, but in a related discipline and I really do think that you need a PhD to have a career in academic psychology. If you don't have the time or stamina for that, as you say, then I don't think it's really feasible to aim for a research career in a university.

But if you are willing to branch outside of academia (consulting, market research, etc), you can probably get hired with just a Masters.
posted by lollusc at 7:16 PM on February 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have a BA, MA and Ph.D. in Sociology. I am a senior manager in a for-profit social science and health behavior research firm. I am also the slowest thinker you will ever meet. When someone says something to me that is completely new, I am a bit flummoxed. I stare a little. It takes me a while to figure out what I think. I compensate for this by being very, very good at my job AND by anticipating all the angles -- at this point in my career, it's very rare that someone says something to me that I haven't already thought of.

That sounds like bragging, but really it is a compensating behavior. I put a lot of time into thinking through all the possibilities from a given option -- like a chess player -- so that few things are new to me any more. One of my tricks is to think out loud. People think I'm giving them a well thought out analysis, when really I'm just chewing over whatever the issue is. I ask a lot of questions while I do this, and by the end they think I'm a genius, when really, all I've done is deployed a lot of dazzle to buy myself time to think.

I didn't start my career like this. I started by working hard and being smart and doing a good job. I'm sure you'll do the same.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:36 PM on February 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


You could get work as an applied researcher with an MA in a policy field, like education or health; the focus there is usually statistics, though. Critical sociology is more of an academic subject, and working in that area that would definitely require a PhD.

What lollusc said is true - intelligence is beside the point. My observation of those I know who are working (i.e., getting paid) in the fields to which you're drawn is that most of them are more or less - mostly more - efficient, organized, reliable, and good at self-promotion. That's also true of people doing well in any field. If you're lacking in these areas, I would advise that you work at developing related skills now, while you have access to the university infrastructure (counselling; learning support services; and student groups, which would give you an opportunity to learn and practice these behaviours without heavy consequences).
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:26 PM on February 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I meant "sociology" in my comment, not psychology. (I wrote that comment in a break from working on a document where I was writing "psychology" a lot. But when I wrote it I did have "sociology" in mind.)
posted by lollusc at 8:51 PM on February 16, 2015


For some perspective, the idea that intelligence matters more than effort is not universal. In eastern cultures, many people feel the opposite - that effort is much more important than inherent intelligence. There is always going to be someone smarter than you do so it's important to think of what other skills you can bring to the table.
posted by kat518 at 7:41 AM on February 17, 2015


There's an old adage:

"What do you call the guy with the lowest qualifying MCAT score?"
"Still a doctor."

Seriously, though, the problem with thinking you're not smart enough to do something is the thinking part, not the smart enough part. Baseline intelligence stopped mattering at some finite point in your teen years. I have been a hiring manager for ten years and I have never hired someone based on my perception of their intelligence, and I have never fired someone for not being smart enough. With very few exceptions, just being smart doesn't cut it once you're an adult in the working world.
posted by juniperesque at 11:41 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


Once you're past a relatively low threshold of intelligence (for values of intelligence meaning the ability to learn and communicate what you have learned to others in a way that others can understand) then intelligence rarely has anything to do with it at all. It's all about hard work. Are you a hard worker? It seems like you are, and you have the motivation to continue being one in the same field long enough to contribute a great deal of value.

You'll be fine, but I'm going to suggest that you will be disappointed with what you'll learn about social science research. It is not about intelligence or hard work. It is much more about being able to produce large amounts of writing on a deadline, and whether or not you understand how academia works.

In the social sciences, you build very incrementally off of other people's work, and in a rather strict way. Original ideas are not often valued, and if you have an original-to-you-idea, you'll be asked to cite someone who had that idea before you did. Your ideas are not "believable" if they haven't already been published. And if you already doubt your own intelligence, you will blame yourself for not being smart enough, when you should just really know that this is how academia works.

My advice is if you are interested in social justice, steer clear of academia and stick with working with and among people outside of academia. Social change is almost never instigated by the work of academics. Regular people don't need academic proof of their ideas, and social science research will never spur policy changes. Policy makers already know what direction they're moving in, and then they request research that backs their claims. When confronted with research contrary to their agendas, they question the value of social science research.

Social science research often tries to emulate the methods and rigour of natural science research in order to gain legitimacy, but people are not predictable in the ways natural substances are predictable. Qualitative research tries to accept people have something to say about their own lives (sometimes) but you don't need to be a researcher with methods and research protocols, to learn something about people's lives - you could just ask them, or - if you're social justice-minded, you'd be busy fighting for civic spaces for people to be heard in, rather than acting as a mediator, collecting "data" and analyzing it in ways that powerful people and policy makers consider palatable. (What's considered "palatable" shifts, depending on whether what you have to say is what they want to hear or not)
posted by vitabellosi at 12:36 PM on February 17, 2015


In the social sciences, you build very incrementally off of other people's work, and in a rather strict way. Original ideas are not often valued, and if you have an original-to-you-idea, you'll be asked to cite someone who had that idea before you did. Your ideas are not "believable" if they haven't already been published.
This is patently untrue. All science is incremental, but saying that one cannot have original ideas in the social sciences is just... strange. I have had plenty of original ideas that I have come up with, often based on what my data tells me, and I use that data or new data or both as a way to strengthen and support those ideas. And then I look to the literature to see whether anyone has had those ideas, and if so, how my work builds on that work. This is how social science works; this is how all science works.

Social science research will never spur policy changes.

Also incorrect. It is true that the gulf between research and practice is one that is often lamented, but practice-oriented disciplines do exist and the research that is being done in the academy does have a direct impact on both policy and on people's lives. Participatory action research is one such research method/model that has a direct impact on daily lives.

You don't need to be a researcher with methods and research protocols, to learn something about people's lives - you could just ask them

I'm afraid this is a gross misunderstanding of how social science works. "Just asking" someone about their lives is not what social scientists do; they use methods to ask questions that are meaningful and theoretically driven (or designed to drive theory). The reason that we use methods to "learn something about people's lives" is so that the knowledge can be verified and transferable. Research is not about obtaining "academic proof of ideas," it is about having a solid base upon which to build.

People are not predictable in the ways natural substances are predictable.
This is why many social science researchers do not identify themselves as positivists.

It is much more about being able to produce large amounts of writing on a deadline, and whether or not you understand how academia works.

Now, this one I'll agree with. Academics are essentially writers, and academia - like everything - is politics. So if you don't like the politics and you don't like to write, sure, academia probably is not for you. But you also aren't asking about becoming an academic - you're asking about whether or not you can obtain a master's degree in a practice-oriented discipline. To which the answer is yes, based on what you've written here.
posted by sockermom at 1:18 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


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