How to solve research problems
overcoming common difficulties
Research problems – Making a start
Sometimes you spend a lot of time researching your subject, but cannot devise a ‘thesis’ or a proposal. You are doing a lot of preparatory work, reading or gathering information, but you are unable to focus your ideas or come up with a topic you think will be original or fruitful. That is the first of your research problems – deciding on a topic.
In cases like this, you can try making a digest of your notes, or try to extract from your information those aspects of your subject which interest you most. Have a look at some other examples of research in the same subject area. Remember that you can change your chosen topic later if necessary. It’s often better to make a start with something half-formed, rather than not make a start at all.
Problem – False start
Sometimes a project begins well, but then gradually appears to be unsound. When inspected closely, the central idea might seem incorrect or fruitless. You might find that there’s not as much information on your topic as you had first hoped. Take care! You will need to make a careful distinction between a lack of material, and just a lack of interest in it. An additional problem in such cases is that by this time, you might have produced a substantial amount of work.
In this case you have some tough decisions to make, and they will be dependent upon how much time you have before you. You can either start afresh or make different use of the same material. Of course, you should discuss this decision with your supervisor. If you have only recently started, you could abandon your idea completely. Scrap the materials you have produced, and start work on something new. This is drastic, but better than continuing with a flawed idea. The work you have abandoned might not be entirely wasted. It will have given you the experience of tackling a longer project.
You will have learned something about handling more material than usual. It will also form background information for your next choice of topic. The experience of abandoning work already completed might be quite painful. Try to think of it in this positive light.
If your first idea was not so bad, choose a different aspect of it. Try to look at the same topic or materials from a different perspective. Do all this in consultation with your tutor, so that you don’t make the same mistake again.
Reworking your material may involve a fresh approach, or a new analysis of the information.
Alternatively, you could chop out parts and replace them with new material. Don’t feel guilty about any of this drastic re-working: it’s quite common. The final result might even be improved for this process of renewal.
Problem – Getting bogged down
One common experience is starting off well, then becoming bored with the subject. What at first seemed interesting now becomes laboured and tedious. You might think that you have embarked upon the wrong project, and the work which lies ahead might seem doubly onerous.
If you have time, take a short break and start again, using a different writing strategy. Alternatively, if you must press on, approach the work from a different angle.
For instance, start working on a different part of the task. Remember – you do not need to write your materials in the same order as the contents page.
Problem – Changing your title or subject
It’s quite common to re-define a research project whilst it is in progress. However, this carries with it the danger that the topic is never properly defined or pinned down. In some cases the re-definition takes you in a different direction, then the subject is re-defined yet again – and you end up with a completely different topic. You are also likely to be using up a lot of the time available for completion.
Re-definition should always be done within the context of a sound plan. You should always have a clear picture of what you intend to do, even if you have not yet done it. If the discovery of new evidence causes you to change your hypothesis, then think through the implications for the whole piece of work. Resist the temptation to make more changes than are necessary.
Problem – Meeting deadlines
Meeting the completion date is a very common problem. This is partly because it is quite difficult to estimate the time required for research and writing. An interesting discovery part way through the project might unexpectedly capture your attention for longer than you had planned. And of course any number of personal issues might crop up unexpectedly to delay the production of your work. Feeling guilty or procrastinating just makes matters worse.
The best way to avoid this problem is to be aware of it in advance, and work to a plan. Create a realistic timetable or a schedule of work – and stick to it. If that isn’t enough, you might need to sacrifice other activity to release time for completing the project. In the most extreme cases, you might have to re-negotiate a new cut-off date with your tutor.
© Roy Johnson 2009
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