How to Begin

The Craft of Research Series starts this week, as many students are beginning to think about their final projects, due this summer. Some are doing their first-year projects; some are doing their master’s theses. Some are already well on their way, and some still need to get properly started. I thought I’d say a few words about that this morning.

It is common to suggest you begin with a question. But another way, which amounts to the same thing, is to begin with what you know and what you don’t know. A question always presumes a great deal of prior knowledge and some limit to it, or gap in it. You can’t wonder what caused the failure of Lehman Brothers without knowing that it failed and, usually, a little something about what kind of failure it was. The meaning of the question simply depends on the knowledge you already have about the firm and, no doubt, the global financial crisis it was embroiled in. You should begin with this meaning, this understanding that suggests an inquiry. Maybe a better word for this is curiosity. That’s as good a place to begin as any.

You should also take stock of your resources. Begin with how much time you have. Don’t think in terms of months or even days or weeks. Try to get a realistic sense of how many hours you’re going to put into this project. Include the theories and methods you’ve already learned among your resources, along with some sense of your own intellectual abilities. How much can you expect to learn in the hours you’ve given yourself? Will you need to develop new (qualitative or quantitative) analytical skills? How much reading will you have to do? How long will it take to collect the data you need? Go back to your question and make sure that you will be able to answer it in time.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough. Find an opportunity for pleasure in doing your project; once you have found it, don’t be ashamed of it. Much of this has to do with being genuinely curious about the answer, not just vaguely anxious about your grade. But it also has to do with appreciating the aesthetic dimension of research. Maybe you like reading. Make sure there is time for that. Maybe you like writing. Definitely, make sure there is time for that. But you might also enjoy conducting interviews or observerving people or drawing graphs or doing calculations or running simulations or writing code. Make sure you approach your question in terms that afford you opportunities for such pleasure.

About a year ago I had an epiphany that, I think, can bring all this together. Our methodologies are always rooted in personal, lived experience. At the end of the day, the methods section of our paper simply describes, as honestly as we can, what we did and why we did it. In an important sense, it is a story told from experience. So begin where you are, with the questions and skills and resources that you have, and then embark on investigation — an adventure, if you will — that will become the story you will tell in your paper or thesis. Try to imagine the journey and set yourself some goals along the way — some experiences you want to have. Like any journey, it’s not going to turn out exactly as you imagine. But you have to begin somewhere and your own imagination isn’t a bad place to start.

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