Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Scorched Earth Method of Research Design

. Thursday, January 24, 2013


Thomas previously had some great thoughts on how to engage in the peer review process, from the perspective of an experienced reviewer. I also like this way of thinking, in many ways saying the same things as Thomas in a different way, from Chris Blattman:

The PhD slides have my first inklings of a framework for thinking about research in political economy of development. My idea is that we should be able to draw a tree from the fundamental questions (the trunk), the big questions (the boughs), and the little questions (the branches). We should be able to hang every paper on that tree. It’s a device I use when I get a paper to referee.
At this stage of my career I take this sort of advice for "reviewing" as advice for how to conceive of and carry out my research. In other words, these types of discussions help me think about what my goals should be for the program of research that I'm engaged in. So I also appreciated Blattman's conclusion:
If you are wondering what the roots to the tree are, well of course it’s the egos and established interests of faculty in the field. So of course the big lesson for my students is that they should mainly aim to burn it down.
Not every paper (or research track) can destroy the entire edifice of all previous research of course, but those that can will certainly get folks' attention.

I used to think that research programs could be divided into high-risk/high-reward strategies and lower-risk/lower-reward strategies: if you strike gold with the former, you'll do well in journals and job markets; but if you strike out you'll... strike out. On the other hand, if you aim a bit lower you'll be more likely to hit the mark. Maybe you'll never be an academic superstar, but you'll never be unemployed either. Using Blattman's metaphor, this is the difference between a research program that exists on the trunk (or sets fire to the roots) and one which lives among the branches.

That may be true, but having recently gone through the job market process for the first time* I'm beginning to think that the "safe" path is actually not low-risk at all. By that I mean that the success of a research program which only asks branch questions is idiosyncratic: some hiring committee better be really interested in those particular branches, or else generating sufficient interest in your research to get a job offer will be difficult. At the same time, there better not be anyone else on the market investigating these particular branches; or if there is, you need to be doing it noticeably better than them.

Branch-work, by definition, does not have immediate appeal to the broad discipline. And broad appeal is helpful when trying to convince hiring committees (and then entire departments) that your work is interesting and important enough that they should pay you to do it, even if most of them don't really understand the particulars of what you're doing.

That doesn't mean that every grad student should try to upend the discipline with every dissertation. That's not my strategy, and I don't think it's a good one. It does mean that research programs which ask big questions of broad interest -- bough and trunk -- are at an advantage to those which do not, holding the quality of the research constant. And those which can ignite the roots are better still.**

*About which more another time, I suppose. I've been planning to write a post about this for awhile now, but haven't been motivated.

**Unless you're trying to get hired in a department where those roots are buried.

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The Scorched Earth Method of Research Design
 

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