Research produces more questions than answers. (Liz Gloyn calls these “academic otters“. Her strategies reflect her position as an early career research in the humanities.)
The successful researchers I know have far more questions and projects they could be working on than they could possibly pursue in their lifetimes, even if they had fewer service responsibilities, lower teaching loads, and a monastic lifestyle devoted to scholarship.
Many of these questions are important questions. Someone really should research them. The problem arises when you think that someone needs to be you.
Making research happen: students
I bet some of those questions would be excellent MA thesis topics or even PhD dissertation topics.
How many graduate students come to you with intelligence, enthusiasm, and a desire to work in your research area but without a good thesis or dissertation topic? Why can’t you show them a list of good topics and let them pick?
You aren’t telling them what to do. They still have the autonomy to say “No, none of those interest me but…” and go away to find their own question. Some of them will take one of those questions and run with it.
You will have a student to work with who is working on something you are genuinely interested in. One of those important questions will get addressed. And you will be motivated to make sure that this contribution actually gets made to the debates, through conference presentations and publications.
Making research happen: post-doctoral fellows and other grant funded researchers
If you apply this way of thinking to your grant applications, you can see that you could make a much more significant contribution to knowledge if there were more of you working on it.
A grant funds research. You may be the principal investigator but the project (or program of research) is bigger than what you will do personally. Yes, there needs to be some of the grant funded research that you are doing yourself, but some of it will be work you are making happen.
In order to do this successfully you need to think bigger about your project. Think about what you (collectively with your research assistants and research fellows) could achieve. Focus on the unifying themes that hold groups of those research questions together. Articulate the big question and then specify the subsidiary objectives.
Those MA and PhD students you are showing your list of topics to … can be funded from your grant. With stipends. (At least at SSHRC they can. In the UK, you can apply for an ESRC Doctoral award for one of those questions and then find a student.)
You can also plan for post-doctoral fellows in your grant application. This is especially useful if you work somewhere that doesn’t have graduate programs. (In the UK this is the norm. UK readers have permission to look puzzled.)
Making research happen: Centres, leadership positions, etc
At a certain point in your career you may be in a position to establish a centre that will provide a focal point for research in a particular area. Perhaps the centre provides shared resources, including technology, interview rooms, etc. Or, perhaps it provides collaborative opportunities through seminars, conferences and whatnot.
You may also be able to apply for a research chair, perhaps funded through the Canada Research Chairs program, or through an institutional award. This kind of position recognizes your own contributions but usually comes with an expectation of leadership.
Both of these options require you to think bigger. You are offering a framework within which you and others will work to answer some of those questions, and the ones that the others bring with them.
Even without this kind of structure, you can take on leadership by organizing workshops and conferences bringing people together. Getting those questions out there amongst a group of able and interested people is bound to lead to members of the group running with some of them. Perhaps you are more interested in one set of issues but someone else is really keen on another.
Knowledge is not a scarce commodity
Or, at least the questions that lead you to create knowledge are not. If someone else gets to one of your questions before you do, that isn’t a tragedy. It means that you can focus on another of the myriad possibilities.
Working with others in these ways also creates opportunities to have the kinds of deep intellectual discussions that lead to even more questions. Or, to collaborative research to investigate them. Collaborations that might lead you in directions you could not have gone alone.
There is a space in this collaborative universe for you to work alone. No one’s autonomy need be threatened. That autonomous, solo-research work is part of a bigger ecology, one which you help to maintain and grow.
Many hands make light work. Even of your rapidly reproducing research questions.
This post was edited July 13, 2015.