Posted by: CJ | December 21, 2010

My Difficult Relationship with Research

Research and I have had a difficult and somewhat distant relationship. But the reasons are complicated. This post is my attempt to tease them out. It’s on my mind right now because I was rejected from a summer program I was excited about, and a friend suggested maybe my research wasn’t impressive enough.

The most obvious reason I don’t really get research is lack of exposure. My undergraduate time was dominated by coursework, and research wasn’t a huge priority at a small liberal arts college. Coursework is a different skill from research, with completely different mindset. I liked learning because it helped me understand the world. I liked it because I felt like I was learning important skills that I could apply outside the classroom to solve problems. It’s taken me awhile to realize this mindset isn’t going to lead to much research, let alone good research.

It didn’t help that I didn’t particularly like what I did understand about research. I was clued in enough to realize that a lot of research is crap. Well, that’s too strong a word, but definitely a product of its environment. Publications, new ideas, and solving “interesting” problems–regardless how silly–are rewarded. The problem with this system is it rewards over-publications, people who leap before they look (i.e., genuinely believe their results but weren’t skeptical enough to thoroughly check them), “lamp-post looking” (researching problems because they’re solvable rather than because they’re interesting), and interesting & unexpected results only useful for demonstrating technical prowess. In other words, my understanding of research was that a lot of it was academics doing their best to be more clever than each other, but not necessarily more useful to society.

Why does such intellectual masturbation bother me? Aren’t I a fellow Ivory Tower dweller? Well…I hate status games, and it felt like getting good research was more of a status game. I don’t like to brag, I don’t enjoy trying to compete, and I loathe dealing with people who do anything to stir up such status games. I want to feel like there’s a problem that I and whatever group I’m a part of are working as hard as we can to solve together. If we must play status games, it’ll be from solving problems we’re working on as a group. Not from whatever little puzzles someone pulled from Car Talk, or a book of puzzles, or their own twisted mind. Not to mention I hate feeling like someone’s ginning up status games because I’m torn between not wanting to play them and not wanting to lose. (Of course, if someone can’t contribute to solving the group problems in some useful way, I’m fine chucking them overboard. I won’t label them an idiot, but I don’t want to work with them either.)

So now I’m feeling like I need to get more motivated in my research. Which means taking it more seriously than coursework, and honestly believing it in. Not just accepting that it’s necessary, but actively believing that I’m doing something interesting and worthwhile.

And I’ve never dealt well with transitions. Sigh…

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