Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Seven Year Research Cycle

The university department I worked in had the explicit assignment to do research that was related to society, the so-called 'practical world'. In those days lecturers had the freedom to initiate and organize their research, which professors could not effectively interfere with. Yet, my research appeared to differ from others.
I was asked to offer a last presentation at my final department 'two day retreat' (a yearly occasion) on 'how-I-did-it'. 
I started to make a shortlist covering the major problems in society. Then I looked at the long project list of my colleagues, and I tried to relate their projects to one or more of society's problems. Such as, immigration, energy, traffic congestion, etc. But, I hardly could, while mine matched more or less. So, my view on problems in society, or my propensity to address them, certainly differed from my colleagues. My research could at least be defined as kind of 'deviating'. Working hard, not considering the issue very much, I even supposed to have done the right thing, and rather foolishly, thought that my work would at some time be recognized in the end. 
I had to delve in my old agenda's and my memory, to get some idea of how my projects had actually evolved. Then, also to my own surprise, it turned out that each major research field I had pursued, covered some seven year period. But also, that these periods had a halfway overlap. The first half of the seven year period I was involved in proved getting accustomed to the new topics, collecting data, and sometimes making a starter mistake, or trying an unfruitful dead end alley. Yet, at its halfway peak beginning to produce tangible results. The second half became less time consuming and was mainly filled with presentations and publications the project material offered abundantly. However, during this second half of easy time, I got in one or the other way, involved in a subsequent project, that repeated the familiar 'first half characteristics'. Again, this did not produce substantial results above the prescriptive, descriptive and explanatory phase. Yet, no one noticed, as I was still easy riding on the previous project, avoiding gossip, as well as the well-known 'publish or perish' consequences. It also had as a result, that I was still offering presentations after my retirement, as if nothing happened.
How did these major project periods trigger off? In general, I was approached by a representative of some external organization, asking me to 'have a look' at a problem they experienced. But, in some cases, I already expected the project to come about, so I had done some preliminary investigations. I.e. at the time I was still having the means available. Almost always, I could on short notice estimate whether I would be able to produce worthwhile results, and how I was to design my approach in general. I learned afterwards that my easy attitude to such questions could be surprising to third parties. Especially, if they had digested a couple of refusals beforehand. Not seldom being told of the impossibilities of the research question.
However, my ready approach towards research demands did not come about that easy. When I had to organize my PhD research on matters of computer use for Provincial monitoring I felt a more than usual need to answer the questions of designing my research project. I required fundamental reasoning, but literature was largely absent in that respect. Most arguing restricted itself to mere editorial recommendations, which were inadequate in my case. The only way out was to develop a general research design myself, that comprised solid internal consistency.