Tips for Doing Research and Other Scholarly Work

From a November, 2006 University of Maine Cooperative Extension dialogue, led by faculty members Louise Franck Cyr, Mark Hutchinson, Lisa Phelps, summarized and edited by Ron Beard and Shirley Hager

1) Form the research question – know what you’re asking

All research and the work of scholarly discovery starts with your curiosity to know “what might happen if”, or “why” or “how come….” Those questions often start with your own observations and experience. Framing your question, begins to help you determine how you will design your research to find answers.

2) Do a good literature review to find out “Is this something new that will add to what we know?”

As we form our research question, we now have unprecedented power to find out what others have thought or done in relationship to that question. Search engines and library data bases put us in touch with colleagues all over the world and reveal unexpected lines of inquiry and allies in designing methods, analyzing data and sharing results. And most of them are accessible from our lap-top computers.

3) Form partnerships to understand what clients want to know and to buy in

Keeping track of the individual questions asked by clients, or the patterns and themes from many clients over time may help you focus your curiosity into a research question. One of the great qualities of extension, as part of the land grant mission, is our contact with community members who will actually use the results of applied research.

4) Form partnerships with colleagues – reach out to do research with others

We all have partnerships with community organizations, industry groups, faculty at University of Maine and other academic or research institutions. We have colleagues as a result of professional associations and we meet colleagues at conferences. Each conversation we have with a colleague might contain the seeds of a good research question and the basis for collaboration.

5) It doesn’t take a lot of money

Our colleagues remind us that scholarly activity need not involve great expense beyond our time. Often our clients are asking us to review and consolidate knowledge to help them with problems and opportunities in their lives and businesses…questions that do not require vast laboratories or longitudinal surveys tracking change over time. Keeping the question and the design simple will often keep your costs simple as well.

6) Have to set aside the writing time – devote days in your calendars

If you do this, you can’t do that. We often get caught up in the “24/7” demands of constant stimulation from our modern communication patterns—cell phones, email and all the trappings. And we know that the nature of extension work involves unlimited demands and limited time—our time. As faculty, we have both the gift and responsibility to stay current and contribute new knowledge. We can only do that by building time for these activities into our work schedule, and resisting erosion of our intentions in favor of other demands.

7) Define purpose, audience, and intended outcome(s) for our written work

Sometimes we forget this basic first step, in our enthusiasm to learn and communicate all we can to whoever will listen or read our results. But all of our work is sharpened and made more relevant if we first know why we are writing, for whom, and what we want them to do as a result.

8) Qualitative and quantitative – both are valuable, valid and inform our work

We need both forms of research to inform our work as extension faculty. Consider these summary definitions of qualitative and quantitative research from Wikipedia: “Qualitative research involves an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern human behavior. Qualitative research relies on reasons behind various aspects of behavior. Simply put, it investigates the why and how of decision making, as compared to what, where, and when of quantitative research. Qualitative research often requires smaller but focused samples rather than large and random samples. Quantitative research is the systematic scientific investigation of quantitative properties and phenomena and their relationships. Quantitative research is widely used in both the natural and social sciences, including physics, biology, psychology, sociology, geology, education, and journalism. The objective of quantitative research is to develop and employ mathematical models, theories and hypotheses pertaining to natural phenomena. The process of measurement is central to quantitative research because it provides the fundamental connection between empirical observation and mathematical expression of quantitative relationships.”

9) Qualitative research can take a lot of time and requires focus

One aspect of qualitative research that takes sometimes unexpected time and focus is transcription of interviews. There is software that can help analyze interview results for themes, through key word searches, but it requires that each interview be typed. Be sure and plan for the extra time for this step.

10) Your project and focus may evolve and change focus on – be open to input

Even when we start with a good researchable question and apply a sound methodology, we learn as we go. Our work is shaped by our experience and the insights we gain from colleagues, partners, and clients. Funding sources and stakeholders have recognized the possibility of shifts in the research as we learn by doing, and adapting to conditions and new insight.

11) Look to involve others for assistance, such as college students

Most of us recall the days when we were expected to try out our fledgling research wings as a course assignment or as part of our graduate programs…and how we wanted to do something real and relevant. We can usually find undergraduate and graduate students, and even high school students, who might assist in our work and appreciate us as mentors.

12) Involve support staff appropriately as members of your team

We are blessed with imaginative, creative and dedicated support staff in Cooperative Extension, folks who can help us think through our research questions, how best to collect and catalogue data and summarize results. Involving them early in the process makes them more effective partners at each step along the way.

13) Think about what you’re doing now–already have something to publish?

We do a mix of things, but we are always adapting and changing in response to changing clients, demands, conditions and opportunities. Each time we adapt, we learn, and as a result, we may have something to add to our fields of knowledge and communities of practice.

14) Consult with our communications staff early and often

We are fortunate to have professional resources within Cooperative Extension, skilled colleagues who have helped countless others think about communicating the results of research and scholarly work, through journal or popular articles, fact-sheets and web-pages. Talking them early on, to help determine audience and the best ways to communicate results will often help you with your research design and methods.