The research minion

Rock & Roll Minions” by Daniel Y. Go is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

One of the most interesting things I do at work is research. Research can be frustrating, overwhelming, annoying, troublesome and tedious. However, it can also be elating, motivating, joyous and inspiring. The fact that it is so varying is almost the best part of it. It is, however, always time-consuming and a little draining (due to the level 2 thinking (Hello, Kahneman) involved).

When I do my own research projects, this is how the process usually goes:

  • Get an idea and think about turning it into a research project
  • Informal chat with colleagues
  • Forget about it for a while
  • Come back to the idea and try to find some studies or theory to gain more understanding
  • Thinking that my idea is a good one
  • Forget about it for a while – doing some everyday tasks instead because it’s hard to get to the next stage
  • Get my act together and set up a quick draft with some headings, start to write a little in the introduction and think about methods
  • Do some other stuff for a while
  • Drafting questionnaires/ interview questions and writing a little more
  • Reading some more and talking to colleagues
  • Doing some other stuff
  • Finally getting ready to collect data
  • Getting distracted by trying to find the right journal, changes to the methods..
  • etc etc

So – it’s not like I have a very linear process that follows the line charts in a methodology book. However, I am in (some) control over it. If I want to, I can ask for research time and lock myself in my office for a day without Teams, mail etc. As I have said before, research is an activity that must be supported throughout the organization and leaders cannot just decide that we should do more research without also making sure that there is culture for it and time for it.

The other kind of research projects I am involved in are where I am more of a secondary author – still with responsibility for the quality and real contribution (in accordance with the Vancouver rules), but without the control (and responsibility) of the first author. Usually, this is a role I have when I am writing with a faculty member. The involvement varies (within the scope of the aforementioned rules) from setting up searches and writing up this method as well as setting up inclusion/exclusion criteria etc. to being part of defining the question itself and writing the protocol (for reviews) and so on. I love this, too. Writing the protocol can be a little tedious, but I love working with faculty. I really do, and I feel like I push my knowledge and learn a lot, too. The thing I don’t love about this kind of involvement is the lack of control for the project. Yes, I can be a bit of a control freak, I’m not going to deny it, but in this case, no control means that I may have spent a lot of time and energy in to something that might never happen or can happen in so distant a future that it is hard to see the path forward. I am not blaming the faculty here, as some of the things that have happened in the past have also been beyond the faculty’s control. But here are some of the things that have happened:

  • a researcher broke her leg and was on sick leave for so long the project got dropped
  • the format the researchers had chosen were not eligible for the journal that they had chosen and the study therefore it was abandoned
  • the other authors got too busy with their other tasks that the part I was in charge of had to be done over again several times (literature searches are like perishables – they don’t just last for ever)
  • the researcher got sick and the project was handed over to someone else (beyond my reach)
  • the researcher got a new job

And then I feel like a minion. I’m like some trained monkey that knows how to use the databases. Every time something like this happens, I am thinking: “I said yes to the project, I delivered my content well within the time frame, I was prepared to move forward, but then something happened that just washed this down the drain”, which means that I have wasted valuable time and effort into something that may or may not ever come to anything. This has happened to me in my own research projects, too, of course. Sometimes I have discovered that a study already exists and that it’s not worth the time and effort to move ahead, or I may have found that the research method I need cannot be used without more resources than I have etc. But – at least I have some control over this. I get to pull the plug myself.

Again, I’m not going to blame faculty for this. After all, they have their own stuff that is beyond their control, and it must be as frustrating to them as it is to me, but still.. it is sometimes very apparent to me that there are power disparities between us, and that has a big influence on my work and my career.

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