It’s a nice hashtag – #whywedoresearch.
But what does it really mean in an uncertain, insecure academic climate? How do we answer that question when on the bad days we’re struggling to find an answer much beyond ‘I really don’t know because I am very tired’.
And on some days, my answer would be a similarly struggling one, over a glass of distracting wine.
But on other days, the good days when the words come and things feel full of hope and potential, it’s all very different.
So gather around friends, into a safe space where, just for a moment we will ignore the outside world. And we will focus on the absolute excitement and exhilaration that research can bring.
Just for a moment.
I’m going to give you three of my answers to #whywedoresearch that have helped keep my heart warm when the academic world felt very, very cold.
1. New ideas are fascinating
A few days ago I was at a conference during an interdisciplinary session listening to speakers talk about their work. And it was utterly fascinating! Projects made all the more fascinating because of the passion of the researchers talking. They not only knew their stuff, they loved their stuff.
It was very cool.
And the thing is, not everything was directly relevant to me – or even indirectly relevant to me – but it was interesting. And sometimes, being interested is enough.
Sometimes the questions they asked – or tiny statements they said – made me quickly go through my own projects in my head.
Had I thought about that? Should I think about that?
• Was something they said linked to things I know and have done previously?
• Or was something they said a new way to rethink my projects, something that could be added to strengthen or deepen them?
• Or was something they said maybe not usable now for me, but something to slot away in the back of my mind for the next project or just to know just in case….
And this is why I love research. I am constantly exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking and my bosses , bless them, let me play with these new ideas to see if they grow into something bigger, and something bolder.
Nothing changes if we don’t change the way we look at things, or the questions we ask.
Research lets us do just that and, when we are in a supportive environment, lets us celebrate when we find brand new things, just as much as when we find something doesn’t work. All new knowledge is celebrated, and so it should be.
2. New collaborations open up the world
So, for me, when new ideas have started bubbling away or when I’ve met a researcher who is just as interested as I am in answering that same question, a new world opens.
Sometimes the new world is more figurative. Working with a bubbling idea or a new person that may have sounded a little…obscure…to others when I first pitched it.
• Hello paper based on Twilight because someone thought the book would be ‘a silly non-academic read’.
• G’Day paper examining Sylvia Plath written because I got cross at a fashion spread in a magazine.
• Hola essay on Santa written with a colleague who thought it would be a fun idea at the time.
Expanding these bubble ideas into actual papers and essays has taught me textual analysis – allowed me to sit with prose and poetry (of varying beauty) to see what stories they tell now and what they could mean. This has opened up new literatures (at least to me) on child psychology.
Sometimes though, the world opening up has been more literal.
I have presented the first two papers above at conferences in Salzburg and Montreal, respectively; the third went viral, an experience which I blogged about. Even when I’ve paid for the conferences myself and it has been hard financially, I would never have been able to visit half the places I’ve been, if I was not following an idea to its written-on-paper conclusion. By going to these different conferences, research has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking (and thus repeating the process again) but it has also allowed people to interact with my work. All of a sudden, the project becomes more alive simply by being questioned and discussed outside of the page and my head.
I have been both lucky and strong-willed enough to be able to follow some of these questions. By listening to others’ research and starting my own, it means that I have become interdisciplinary by the very nature of simply being curious.
3. Because why not me?
There’s a lot of discussion about who is doing research – and how representative these people are. It is foolish to think that who we are doesn’t irrevocably shape the type of research we do and the questions we ask.
How do we ask new questions when it is always the same type of people asking the questions, seeing the world through too-similar a lens?
In my field, the predominant narrative remains one that is quantitative, based within psychiatry and psychology.
I am none of those things.
With some lived experience of what I study, I am enthralled by people’s stories. Trying to get an ethics application through one time, I explained that I have never created a project of which I wouldn’t want my mother to be a part. Research can be rigorous while still being utterly human: something I say so often I feel like it may as well be tattooed on me.
And so because stories fascinate me, I ask questions that are definitely not quantitative but may sometimes be psycho-social.
Right now, I am asking questions about experiences of parenting programmes, trying to understand what they’re like for parents and whether they’re helpful. The whole project is grounded in people’s experiences, not just their statistics, which feels useful and holistic.
I ask the questions that I do because I want my research to matter to the people who take part in my studies. Research has to be a positive experience for particpants. I want my research to be helpful, even if it’s just making someone smile over the Santa essay.
But I ask those questions because of who I am. There needs to be other questions asked – other bubble ideas turning into papers – and so there needs to be other people. All of us different to each other – except perhaps for a perpetual curiosity, burning bright.
I hope all researchers have a perpetual curiosity. I hope mine never dims.
Keep on keeping on
Inside this safe space, #whywedoresearch can be a warm, heartening thing. I know that outside of this space, academic life is much harder, and it is not the intention of this post to trivialise that at all.
These three reasons for #whywedoresearch have helped get me through the darker times, and I hope they speak to you too.
Are these reasons similar for you? Tell us why you research and what keeps your passion aflame. You can tweet at us, or just use the #whywedoresearch hashtag to tell the world!