"I never want to do research again"

The challenge of doing 'proper' research

06 December 2014

When I studied at Utrecht University for my master's degree, statistics was not my favourite subject. I failed the exams a couple of times while I passed in one for all other subjects. I found research methodology a difficult course and never thought I would become a research lecturer. But only 3 months after passing the research methodology exam at university, I was asked to teach that same subject at my old college/polytechnic for social studies and have been for almost 26 years! I even worked as a researcher at Hewlett-Packard research labs in Bristol (best job I ever had) and did research for the lectorate at Inholland last year, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I do understand students who say they never want to do research again. It does not seem creative, but it can be a creative process if you do something you are genuinely interested in. It seems to be all about numbers, but it isn't - it is about being curious, wanting to know more about a certain subject, about asking questions and becoming an expert in that one small topic you have chosen. And like the other important numbers, finance, it determines your direction and gives information on what decisions to take for your business. Good data can help you developing a good management and/or marketing strategy; you do have to look into the wishes and needs of the people involved (customers, staff, organisations).

It might not appear to be creative, because you have to follow certain steps. Whether you do research for bachelors or master's degree or a PhD, research is research and you have to do it right. It has to be valid (did you really measure what you intend to measure? Are there any systematic errors made that affect the results and generalisability?) and reliable (is it repeatable; can other researchers follow your steps and end up with similar results? What random errors have been made - because everybody can make mistakes, which is never a problem, as long as you discuss them in your report). It should be a systematic approach and you should try to keep your own opinion to a minimum; try to be as objective as possible (strive for intersubjectivity). It is easy to confirm what you already thought or what your client wants to hear. Everybody can find facts, literature and data that simply confirm what you already thought; the challenge is to try to find the opposite; that is called falsification. Do not just use books that say exactly what you or your client want to hear, but challenge yourself and find out what opponent say about the same issue. Do not ask leading questions so the respondents (the customers, staff members, experts in the field, etc.) tell you what you want to hear, because you might as well not ask anything at all.

In research it is less about the answering the questions and more about asking the right questions. The most difficult part! Finding out what the real problem is and then focus on that problem; make it do-able - simplify it with the use of literature. Find your boundaries, again through the use of existing theories from literature. Mark out what is and what is not involved in your research. It is impossible to do everything; you have to make choices. Dare to make these choices; whatever you choose, it is good, as long as you explain why you have chosen to work with a certain (combination of) theorie(s). It is all about substantiation; describe every step you took and why you took that step. Why did you choose theory A and not B? What makes theory A better suited for your research than theory C? Why did you decide to combine theory A with theory D? Substantiate everything you do! You are allowed to make your own choices, as long as the reader understands what you have done and why you have done it. Narrow down your research: advice is not to read too much (start with max 3 books or articles) because too much inspiration can only make things more difficult. In research you go deep, not broad. You probably start broad (is it a marketing problem? Management problem?), then you read 1 or 2 books you know already (for example, use literature used in school or that you enjoyed while studying). If you know what the problem is (again, please do not underestimate how difficult it is to define the problem), choose a direction and stick to that. And substantiate why you have chosen that direction ;)

I did not like research at university. I find it challenging when I do academic research, it is not easy at all. Teaching research and giving feedback is definitely easier than executing research! But I am back at doing research. Now for my own business. I am writing a project proposal and I want to apply for funding for a cultural and professional exchange. It is all about the numbers; I start with the budget and tweak the budget every time I decide on adding a new element or when I decide more or less artists will be part of the exchange programme. But besides the numbers of the budget, I also have to do some research. How many people will I reach with my project (target groups and secondary target groups)? What are the costs for flights, accommodation, daily allowance for food & drink, local transport, etc.? And I have to find out whether the main objective I have in mind for this project, makes sense.

If I aim for economic growth through professionalisation of the music and event industry, I have to provide evidence that professionalisation does contribute to economic growth. So I do desk research into creative entrepreneurship and how learning skills about music and event management can also contribute to developing general management and life skills. That The Netherlands saw no less than 774 festivals with more than 3000 visitors in 2014 and on the African continent the growth is also evident. Dutch people like to travel, but the African continent is big and many Dutch people do not have a lot of knowledge about Africa. Many still associate Africa with starvation and poverty, but the numbers of travellers to Africa is growing and many potential tourists are interested in experiencing African cultures. And show that tourism is good for local economies because tourists spend money in the country on hotels, taxi, food, etc. I want to show the potential funders that education is an important tool because knowledge is power. Education empowers, and education promotes greater participation. Education means more than acquiring knowledge. It empowers people to develop personally. All interesting information that can be found in reliable reports from The World Bank (on tourism for example), United Nations (on education), research reports on festivals in The Netherlands (from Respons, BUMA, NVPI or VNPF), and other literature backed by research.

I do understand students do not like research. It is different when you have to. It is also less inspiring when you are given an assignment and cannot choose your own subject (in year 1). It is also more difficult if it is more about the process than about the outcome (for your thesis). At the end of the day, it is about curiosity - you wanting to find out a lot about one particular thing. You will become an expert in the subject, so you better choose something you really find interesting. And make choices; you cannot do it all!! First make sure you know what the problem is, then read a couple of books (not more! and keep track in a logbook what quotes, paragraphs and pages you might want to use so you can find it back later), make choices based on a theory you have chosen on what part of the problem you want to look into and substantiate why you made these choices. You will end up doing research in your working life, but when you do it for your own business, it is different and you can take some liberties you cannot take when you do research for a degree or when you do academic research. You need to know how it works before you can make educated choices on what you should do and what you might be able to ignore.

Get that grade, that degree or publication before you can loosen the ropes a little.. You will end up doing research because you want to know more about a certain topic, because you want to know what attendants of your festival enjoyed and what they like you to improve, because you want to attract visitors or buyers for your product and you need to know where to find these people, or just because you are curious :) You can read blogs, (online) magazines, watch documentaries, read biographies, talk with your friends about certain topics to satisfy your curiosity and help you make certain (business) decisions or to help you making a good case to convince people to get involved. First you need to clear that hurdle of graduating.. research can be challenging and it will never be easy, but once you passed that hurdle, it is up to do how often you will use your research skills.