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Owning and Shaping my Research

Some weeks back I was part of a workshop (“You can shape your research identity”) facilitated by Geraldine Fitzpatrick, host of the Changing Academic life podcast, which really got me thinking about my research identity and what that even means. The workshop was geared towards sharing our experiences on what holds us back from doing our best work and proactively shaping our research identity. What I thought would be a typical academic research workshop (you know the ones filled with much academic jargon and you start to question whether your research makes sense anymore), quickly turned out to be a journey of self-discovery and many ‘aha’ moments.

Taking charge/ownership of my research wasn’t something I had thought much about as part of my research studies. I thought that if I just follow what I was told and what I saw, I too would someday be as ‘cool’ as all the other ‘rock star, research professors out there. I didn’t realise that knowing myself and understanding what drives me could influence and shape my research in terms of the research choices I was making. Connecting my research to my core values, making use of my strengths or allowing aspects of my personality to come through my research work was foreign. Besides, wouldn’t it result in work that is not considered ‘academic’ enough?

As an upcoming researcher embarking on a Masters or PhD programme, it is quite common to try and separate oneself from their research. That is having a distinct separation between you (the person you believe you are) and the ‘researcher’ (you who is trying to get that thesis submitted and satisfy your supervisor and ultimately the examiners). This is more apparent in the type of language that we would use like “my supervisor says this is my focus”, “I’m not sure what my supervisor wants from me” and “the proposal committee said so”. We tend to remove ourselves from the process as though we need permission to involve our authentic self and shape our work in a way that aligns with who we are.

It makes me wonder whether some of the internal conflict or tensions I would experience during my thesis journey (field work, analysis, theory building) etc was (to some degree) a result of not embracing or being clear on my strengths, values and purpose, and the role that they played in the research choices I made or could make. Maybe some of the questions that I could not quite articulate or explain to my supervisor were because I was having a mini-internal fight trying to ignore/fight/push-back ‘me’ in the entire process under the guise of being ‘professional’ and ‘scientific’.

Going back to the workshop I attended, there was a question that Geraldine posed that struck me:

“What’s your ‘worthy’ research agenda?”

The word worthy got to me here because I have never heard anyone ask about research agendas in that way before. When I started out my research career, I would often think about my research goal or research agenda. But I didn’t question much whether it was worthy to me; whether it was exciting and aligned closely with who I was or thought I was. I mean I did think about whether I was adding some form of value to the world, but I didn’t truly interrogate the research choices I made or really understand when I sensed some internal tension.

Geraldine went on further to talk about defining a ‘worthy’ research goal. One where you get to do more thrilling, daunting and important work:

  • Thrilling – that makes use of your strengths and values and energises you

  • Daunting – that pushes you to grow

  • Important – that connects to the difference you want to make

Such a perspective continues to challenge me to be more intentional about the kind of research work I embark on. Increasingly I get to appreciate that there is so much more to learning and doing research beyond the mechanisms of how to do the research. I then wonder: How should we create spaces for our own students to encourage them to take charge of their research much earlier on in their studies? How do we strike a balance between aligning your work to your values and purpose and still ensure you keep up with the demands of what academic society dictates to be appropriate or in ‘trend’ now?

There is still more to unpack and reflect on, but it would be great to hear other thoughts. In your own work what strategies do you have for owning your research more? What struggles did you have to overcome?

Check out the Changing Academic Life podcast here:

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