J.L.Lemke On-line Office

Secrets of Good Research

After getting your PhD by one means or another, the second most important thing for a doctoral student is actually learning how to do good research. (If it's not for you, you can stop reading right now.) If you already have a PhD you may still not know a lot of what you need to about really good research.

Learning to do good research is usually presented as a technical issue: acquiring skills and techniques of data collection, analysis, and presentation. This is the least of it. Anyone can learn these skills fairly easily if they can find a reasonably coherent teacher (though this is not as easy as it sounds).

What really matters to good research is good judgment, about: what is worth investigating, what methods will yield interesting results, which bodies of knowledge or conceptual theories to draw upon, and which to connect your results back to.

These matters are not easily taught or learned explicitly. They are acquired by participation in a community of practice, and they are to some extent arbitrary creations of these communities. They are a kind of habitus, a system of dispositions that tend even unconsciously to guide you in fruitful directions. You acquire them by hanging out with people who have them, regardless of the official status of these people. Most university faculty members in any given department, even at good universities, do not display these dispositions very notably. Neither are these entirely matters of superficial and ephemeral fashion. Primarily they are matters of philosophical disposition, of thoughtfulness, of genuine intellectual engagement with substantive issues. You need to find people who have really thought long and deeply about what they are doing and what other people are doing. Such people are always rare.

Some guidance for your search. Older, European-trained faculty members are a good bet. Their  academic culture insisted on deep philosophical analysis of the foundational assumptions of the discipline, its concepts and methods, and its various alternative schools of thought. If you are in a program that is dominated by a single theoretical, philosophical or methodological perspective, go looking for people, perhaps outside the program or in other departments, who know the alternatives and the arguments pro and con. Find people who know something about the history of the discipline, back to the 19th or early 20th century. Do not underestimate the importance of history: it tells you who won the wars, where the bodies are buried, which roads could have been taken but weren't. What you are being taught as a simple matter of the cumulative discovery of truth is merely history as written by the victors, and no one's version should be trusted less.

For students in the human sciences, I do not especially recommend Philosophy or History as academic subjects in their own right, but for the invaluable perspectives they provide on any other discipline or research issue. Read the philosophers (with help and guidance: what they say and what they have come to mean are often quite different) that are relevant to the fields you work in. Everyone has to read Plato and Aristotle and Kant; if you haven't, plan some time to do so. Not because they are right, but because the philosophers who come later and are more relevant to contemporary concerns write in a framework that presupposes familiarity with them, just as much European literature presupposes that you have read the Jewish and Christian sacred texts or classical Greco-Roman mythology.

Get to know
the major theories, or meta-theories, that shape intellectual issues today: semiotics, hermeneutics, phenomenology; critical social theory, gender theory, the postmodernisms.

Ignore the rhetoric of exclusion by which writers try to show that any one of these is best. They are all valuable, in combination; each complements the others in various ways. They are all perhaps opposed to an older alignment, variously (and not very aptly) called modernism or positivism, which was in turn opposed to the theological-alchemical worldview that preceded it. Each view nonetheless inherited many of its assumptions from the one it opposed itself to. Discover these things, but take your time. Just getting started and keeping at it is enough to inoculate you against the superficiality of most academic analyses, if not enough to produce a cure for whatever you may already have caught!