What’s the best way to choose a research agenda?

Before, during, or after graduate school some academics (including researchers, investigators, and scholars) struggle with determining what questions they want to answer, disciplines they want to contribute to, or what their overall research agenda is or should be. Although this dilemma may continue throughout a scholars’ entire career, making decisions connected to this process is not as simple as outsiders to this task might think.

Some of the choices regarding a research agenda have to do with the type of job and institution scholars or aspiring ones currently study at, work at, or want to get a job at. One of the first decisions is whether the research will be conducted in a private sector setting (e.g., research consulting organization, social media corporation, etc.), or in the context of an institution of higher education. In the former the choice of research subject is pretty much pre-determined by the organization, while in the latter scholars almost always have free reign to choose the subjects they want to explore, and the questions they want to answer.

Thus, one of the issues that researchers must confront is determining which research setting appeals to them the most, and where they believe that they can realistically get a job that will adequately financially support them. Not everyone who earns a Ph.D. can or wants to work in the private sector, nor at an R1 university. Instead they may find employment at a small college or university that may not place a high value on scholarly research.

Another factor that can influence the choice of research agendas are the subject matters and kinds of research, program and mentorship a graduate student or incoming assistant professor is exposed to (e.g., graduate programs in anthropology are not suited for candidates who are interested in conducting chemistry related research). The kinds of research and questions scholars attempt to answer may also be predicated on where they live, work, or visit.

Many graduate programs attempt to provide students with a variety of different courses, and expose them to different research teams so they can ostensibly make their own choices about what suits them bet. Others pair incoming graduate students with supervisors whom they believe share similar research interests, and rarely do students switch to other advisors or mentors.

Many investigators simply continue the research trajectory established by their graduate school supervisor or mentor they worked with. This has an element of predictability. One knows the landscape, the important conferences, and network. It’s a safe environment that minimizes risk.

That being said, it’s often hard to change subject specializations because of a researchers’ beliefs surrounding sunk, start up, and switching costs. But researchers, however, need to ask themselves if conducting research in the area that no longer interests them or that they believe does not assist them, then it may be time to move on.

Then again a scholars’ research agenda may ebb and flow. Certainly the requirements of securing a job, and moving up through the ranks may drive the choice of research a scholar conducts.

Nevertheless, there are at least six interrelated processes that can guide the choice of a research agenda. They include:

1. Serendipity

Sometimes the subjects and questions that researchers choose to focus on are mainly done through chance. For instance, the investigator goes on a vacation, discovers something that interests them, and over time they increasingly conduct research on the subject.

2. Grants driving the process

Alternatively some scholars make decisions regarding the topics and questions they choose to research based on the availability of grant funding. They learn what funding sources are interested in, determine if they have the knowledge and capabilities to receive a grant from the organization, and if it makes sense to them, they craft proposals that they believe the funders will choose. If the research proposal is accepted then they carry out the research to complete the project.

3. The burning question approach

Another motivation driving some researchers are burning questions they want to answer. These questions may be longstanding, based on lived experience, activism, and originated during at an early age in the persons’ life or they emerged after the person was exposed to different life circumstances. In these cases the question is so fascinating that the person is motivated to find answers to the questions beyond what they read through doing a normal literature review. The question may sustains the researchers’ interest for a long time, or there may be a situation/s where the scholar shifts from one question that they are passionate about answering to another.

4. The discipline determines the unanswered questions

Sometimes researchers, after they become familiar with a subject area, start looking for gaps in the literature or knowledge and then try to fill them in. The gaps are discover after the researcher becomes increasingly familiar with the subject matter.

5. A theory drives the process

Most subfields develop hypotheses, theories, and models. These building blocks are tested by analyzing relevant data. Over time new research methods and data are applied to the hypotheses, theories and models to understand the situations that they do or do not apply to.

6. Access to data may drive the process

Data exists in a variety of different forms and are of different levels of quality. Sometimes it is readily accessible (e.g., in an archive), whereas at other times it is not (e.g., nonobservable). Many researchers chose to answer questions based on this availability and quality of the data to which they apply certain tests.

Knowing and understanding that there are about six interrelated processes may help researchers, have a better understanding of the multiple ways they can go about finding appropriate research topics and fields to explore.

Whatever your motivation, it’s important to keep in mind that research agendas can and do change throughout a scholarly career, and this is predicated on the fact or possibility that over time, not only do interests change, but so do motivations surrounding conducting research and opportunities too. As it turns out there is no one best way for researchers to determine questions to answer, fields to explore or a research agenda. The answer is it depends.

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Joel Kramer