In contrast to the range of disciplines in which research is carried out, there are limited types of research. Scholars tend to navigate three categories: exploratory, problem-solving, or testing-out.
The first two are favourites of PhD students. Exploratory or experimental or entrepreneurial research is sexy: I go where no one has gone before! Many of my own students propose exploratory research. They have honed in on a topic or issue that has yet to be fleshed out in the academe. Perhaps a new technology is being introduced or a new law adopted and they wish to prophesize future outcomes. In other instances, students have identified a problem – climate change, space debris, or the Zika virus – that they propose to tackle. Solutions are unknown and what better way to build a scholarly profile than to engage in cutting edge research, searching for answers to global plights.
Both are favourites for exploratory and problem-solving research is exhilarating. Out of the way Vasco de Gama! Hold my hat Stephen Hawking! I am here and the world will be better for it. While the ambition is commendable, inspirational even, both types of research are better tackled in the post-doc phase of a researcher’s development. Recall what I said earlier: postgraduate studies are forms of research training. Tackling more advanced forms of research in your early days is a surefire pathway to anxiety, disappointment, and, more of than not, failure. It is a little like chasing a place on the Olympic team before you have won a local competition.
The third form of research – testing-out – is the type that junior researchers should cut their teeth on. Testing out involves exploring the limits of existing research or of established generalisations. For example, instead of developing an alternative model to representative democracy, a political studies postgraduate student should consider testing: a) the limits of democracy in a massified society, b) the impact of electronic ballots on voter turnout rates, or c) the role of referendums in enhancing or eroding popular engagement.
In each of these instances, researchers build their projects on solid foundations: they add a shed, sometimes a garage, to an existing home. Originality in their contribution remains a key target but, unlike with exploratory or problem-solving research, information is available that they can build upon. Postgrads or junior researchers thus do not find themselves scrambling in search of the unknown but making a contribution to the known.
Testing-out research is more manageable than exploratory or problem-solving research, making this type more suitable for a postgraduate degree.