Trading blows with Said, Chomsky, and Foucault: Tips for contributing to a body of knowledge

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In my previous post, I detailed the different types of research that postgraduate students are likely to engage in. I concluded by declaring that ‘testing out’ research is most suitable to postgraduate students. In a testing out project, the researcher explores or ‘tests’ the limits of existing research. Postgrads need not struggle with—and often succumb to— exploratory or problem-solving research. Instead, they can produce quality research and contribute to a body of knowledge by testing the limits of extant research. Of course, this statement invariably begs the question: how does an aspiring or junior researcher achieve quality research?

In truth, it is much easier than it seems. The first step toward quality research is observation. Postgrads should observe other researchers, read their scholarship, follow them in the lab, and have a conversation (preferably many) with them. Gleaning tips from successful researchers will help you understand both what works and where the pitfalls lie. Noam Chomsky, for example, is unparalleled in his commitment to responding to emails from junior researchers. Reach out and ask him a meaningful question about methodology.

In the second instance, emulate your role model. Identify the pattern, theory, or equation they work with and mimic it. Your supervisor is more apt at providing guidance with what they know and, in truth, will be flattered by the attention and thus more open to teaching you the tricks of the trade. For instance, Edward Said was a master wordsmith. I study his prose and try to adapt my own writing to it (irrespective of how often I fail!).

The third step is practice. According to Malcolm Gladwell, practice is not what you do when you are good at something but what you do to get good. Repeat the exercises over and over. Refine them, improve them, introduce new variables, and evaluate the outcomes. By so doing, you will achieve a deeper understanding of the conventions of academic research and achieve the agility needed to tackle my final tip.

Once you have developed the ability to carry out the preceding activities, pursue forms of experimentation. Trial new theories or methods; work with distinct and even unfamiliar datasets. By dabbling in the unknown, you will gradually develop your own style, enhancing your abilities and your potential as a researcher in the process. It is at this stage that you can pursue the more challenging forms of research such as problem-solving or exploration, transforming your future research into a work of art (to paraphrase Foucault).

By following these tips, you will develop the ability to recognise and ultimately to generate the type of high quality research that leads to post-docs, junior academic positions, and more meaningful work.

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