The rookie researcher’s check-list

SETTING OFF on your first research project—or, for that matter, on any new one—likely will create some sense of confusion. You face a topic that, by definition, you don’t know much about, along with inevitably high expectations regarding outcomes. At some stage, you’ll have to know the issue inside out. For now, mostly, you draw a blank. A good place to start is to answer the following checklist of questions, which will point you in the right direction for the journey.

Is my topic sufficiently well defined? A good topic, as this stage, is one that you understand, that appears doable on the face of it, and that seems interesting. If one of these three is missing, discuss further with your manager.
Do I have a clear idea of the end-game? Your work should never be left open-ended. Make sure you know precisely what kind of output (an article, a thesis, a visual rendition) you are aiming for.
What is my overall timeframe? Not setting a deadline guarantees that things will take longer than necessary, and adds an unwarranted element of uncertainty. Fill the void by defining your goals.
Have I parsed my topic into subtopics? Any issue of interest contains a number of distinct facets or dimensions that you must think through and list. This list will guide you in your data-collection process.
What are my preliminary interrogations? Don’t fear that your initial questions may sound naïve: they should be. By answering these quickly, you will move faster to more sophisticated ones.
What kind of first-hand material will I use? Sound research cannot rest solely on work already carried out by others. You must therefore specify, early on, what observations, interviews, data sets you intend to garner and build upon.
Who around me can help me get started? As we worry about the long road ahead, we usually ignore forms of support that are closest to home. Colleagues, friends, relatives, neighbors often have important leads or insights that may kick start data collection.
What creative points of entry can I think of? Good data collection almost always flows from unexpected sources, which means that you, as a rookie on your subject, have the advantage of imagination. Use it.
What existing literature is available? Virtually all topics are far better studied than we tend to assume. Of course, there is always a new angle, but to narrow it down, pull together a strong bibliography to cover your bases and find inspiration.
What analytic tools can I build? Data is rarely pre-structured and must therefore be organized from the get go. Get started on whatever chronology, set of biographies, spreadsheet of figures or map may ultimately prove useful.
What information system should I deploy? Your research likely will tap into a large variety of sources, that must be funneled effectively if you are to keep track. See more below.
What academic disciplines can I draw upon? Not all research is academic, but academia has much to offer to any research project. Ask friends and colleagues with different backgrounds about conceptual approaches that may apply to your topic, or simply inspire you to take a fresh look at it.
Which of my strengths can I play to? Two people working separately on the same topic will address it very differently, as a result of divergent skills, opportunities and instincts. Make the most of whatever your strong suits are.
Which of my weaknesses must I factor in? Similarly, don’t pretend that you don’t have weak spots. Identify them to see how best to overcome or circumvent your handicaps.
Are there executive decisions I must make? Managing your research project entails some pragmatism. If you evidently lack the time, resources, access or motivation to see it through, raise problems and make decisions about them without delay.
When should I next see my manager? Having answered the above questions, give yourself a deadline for completing preliminary research, and schedule a chat with your manager to make it real.

At work, researchers usually must display high levels of autonomy, which in turn requires adequate tools. A big part of your ultimate success will stem from kitting yourself out from the very start. A central component of that equipment is what you could call the “the analyst’s information system.” This will depend on your topic, your specialty, your inclinations and so on.

In the Synaps context, a powerful information system, to comprehensively investigate and report on a specific issue, would include the following:

  • List all relevant contacts, in separate categories. Distinguish those you already know, and can reach out to, from those you have yet to engage. Map connections between them, as figuring out potential introductions, factors of tension, and risks related to groupthink are all key. Break your network down into operational subcategories.
  • Divide your overall topic into subtopics of interest and create a “running file” for each, where you will dump, for future reference, whatever corresponding material you come across as you keep up with your topic generally. Here you may also document your own thought process—ideas that arise and that you want to write down.
  • Keep track, in a separate list, of the emerging “subjects” that you feel the need to investigate further, and possibly cover specifically, as you process such material.
  • Identify key conventional media sources, or blogs, and subscribe to their mailing lists. Take time to check the right boxes to narrow down your options if possible. Create a label on Gmail (or any other server) and apply a filter to receive such emails in a specific folder.
  • In parallel, take time to systematically unsubscribe from unwanted distribution lists, and report spam to reduce the clutter.
  • Identify and group key Twitter sources in a private list.
  • Befriend key Facebook sources and like relevant pages.
  • Make sure to build diversity into your social media networks to capture the broadest sample of views.
  • Define a policy for your social media usage, to cut down on random scrolling, and make the time you spend on Facebook and Twitter more productive.
  • After interviews, systematically type your notes and organize them, with tags, to ensure you can navigate them easily even several years later.
  • Finally, when saving documents, use file names that clearly identify them, ideally with date and subject matter. If you are handling large volumes of documents, distribute them into categories, themselves made clear in your folder names.

By the time you implement the right combination of ideas above, the void you may have felt as you initiated your project will already have started to fill. What was once a blank page is now pregnant with the reassurances of writing, and without even knowing it, you’re well underway.

Enjoy the occasional, thoughtful boost to your productivity!

Illustration credit: Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Holland goes over the pre-flight checklist while sitting in the SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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