Comforting words for would-be adventurers

Getting the Most out of the Research Experience
September 14, 2007

Worse than any interrogation on the finer points of statistics, one of the most difficult questions a social science researcher will ever face is the hairdresser's casual "So what do you do then?"

In my case, this typically elicits a vague and rambling reply on data collection, research methods and the like, perhaps with a clarification that, no, the job doesn't involve wearing a white coat or injecting rodents with household detergents.

There is no archetype of "the social scientist" that clearly exists in the public consciousness - or in the consciousness of many students of the social sciences for that matter. So when it comes to gaining insight into the kind of life and career that lies ahead of them - other than possibly the example of their supervisors - most junior researchers do not have much to go on.

Brian Roberts's Getting the Most out of the Research Experience aims to give students and less experienced researchers an insight into both the personal and professional consequences of taking up academic research for a living. Roberts describes it as an "advice-cum-comforter" for those embarking on what he calls the "adventure" of research. It is unique in this respect: as well as providing guidance on career development through obtaining funds and publications, the book focuses on the emotional and psychological aspects of what it means to be a researcher.

Throughout the text, Roberts emphasises the need for "reflexivity" in research. He defines this as "'self-monitoring' - the 'reflection' on the activities of the researcher, including the interconnections between research practice and external involvements, as well as consideration of the actions within research processes".

The author clearly leads by example because much of the material here appears to stem from personal reflection and self-examination. For example, several sections describe how working with former mining communities in South Wales made Roberts more aware of his own cultural identity and led him to consider the impact of this on his research findings.

This emphasis on "reflexivity" derives in part from the book's fairly narrow disciplinary focus. The publisher's blurb describes it as "for students of all levels across the social sciences", but it is Roberts's experience of qualitative research in sociology that informs much of the material. Thus the typical "researcher" as described in the book is someone working "out in the field", in close contact with research participants, often immersed in their communities. The author acknowledges the "positivist" approach - in which the researcher remains an ostensibly separate and objective observer - but it is clear he finds this approach overly restrictive.

As a result, some of the emotional and interpersonal issues discussed are less relevant to people involved in more quantitative or experimental research. Nevertheless, other aspects that the author chooses to focus on are universal: coping with stress; dealing with criticism and rejection; and finding the will and inspiration to write.

Although aimed at students and newer researchers, different parts of the book will appeal to different audiences. Those with less experience may be drawn to the practical tips on matters such as writing for publication and giving conference presentations, yet find themselves puzzled by some of the more reflective discussion. More seasoned researchers will enjoy comparing their own experiences against Roberts's interesting insights into the "inner life" of research.

This is a thoughtful and stimulating work that, above all, succeeds in its stated aims of being a source of advice, help and reassurance. Moreover, the next time the hairdresser asks "So what do you do then?", I will be able to spare them the methodology waffle and simply reply, "I'm an adventurer."

Mark Rodgers is a research fellow, Centre for Reviews and Dissemination, York University.

Getting the Most out of the Research Experience: What Every Researcher Needs to Know

Author - Brian Roberts
Publisher - Sage
Pages - 176
Price - £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 9780761941194 and 9780761941200

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