The Research Process: How To Polish A Diamond In The Rough

The research process can be tough, and at times, grueling. There are a lot of hiccups—the struggle to find the best sources, not having “good data”, trouble with equipment, endlessly reading dense materials, having insufficient technical understanding of the content, the stress of having limited funds, and among all, the burnout and lack of motivation when you don’t know whether your efforts will pay off. And despite the years of experience you may have under your belt, the process continues to test your patience and have you doubt your abilities. But while research may not be glamorous by any means, with proper guidance, the process can prove to be both valuable and rewarding.

The place to start when pursuing research is to assess your goals and interests. Ask yourself questions like: 

  • Is there a specific topic or issue I’m interested in working on?
  • Am I working towards a specific goal or product, like a presentation or paper, or am I just using this process to explore topics of interest?
  • Do I want to work on something independently and start from scratch, or do I want to gain experience through an existing project?

You will find that when coming up with answers, you’ll have a clearer understanding about how to best structure your research experience to fit your goals. And if you’re having difficulty in creating those goals, begin by pinpointing your interests. You can do this in a variety of ways. Think about the classes you’ve taken in the past—have any of them sparked curiosity? Think about your personal experiences—which ones were the most meaningful and why? 

In my case, having seen my mother, a strong woman of color endure a variety of challenges—whether it be via language, health issues, gender disparities, financial struggle, etc.— and seeing the stark differences in lifestyle and behavior just a generation later with myself, I became fascinated in exploring the interplay between women and social determinants. And it was only through the combination of having listened to the stories of women in my family, taking classes and watching documentaries relevant to human rights and public health, and engaging in extracurricular activities that accentuated these topics, that I was able to come across an issue that caught my attention, maternal mortality in communities of color, and a field that enveloped my varying interests, public policy. However, despite having both the topic and field set in stone, I was struggling with creating a project. The ideas I came up with were too broad and overwhelming, like “critically analyze the current policies aiming to improve maternal mortality and morbidity rates“. It was in this beginning portion of the process where I felt stuck. Luckily I was able to probe and figure out why I felt that way— my limited understanding of the field’s research methodology—and find a means to address this issue—find someone who is more knowledgeable to guide me. 

Choosing the right mentor for your independent research is arguably the most critical factor in ensuring a worthwhile experience and meaningful project outcome. However, finding one may prove to be a challenge. My best advice is to start by one of two methods.

First, if you are well connected and have a solid network of individuals that can support you and your research endeavours, begin by reaching out to someone in your circle as a prime point of reference. It’s often people that know you, your interests, and your work ethic that are willing to either take you on as a mentee, or personally refer you to colleagues and other relevant individuals. This was my case. 

Having taken a ‘Health Communication’ course, and helped on one of her projects, I reached out to my professor and asked if she would be interested in serving as my mentor for my independent research. Despite having to decline due to a rough teaching and research semester, she referred me to a colleague of hers whose expertise she felt would actually better suit my type of work— this is how I became acquainted with Dr. Gordon Mitchell, my current mentor. 

But what happens when you aren’t familiar with anyone who could either serve as your mentor or point to one? Fear not. If I hadn’t been introduced to Professor Mitchell, I would have likely ‘cold-emailed’ him after seeing his faculty profile on the Communication Department’s website. Profiles listed on a department, company, or likewise site, outline the individuals associated, their professional backgrounds, and their previous/current work. They serve as a great resource for individuals, like students, who hope to expand their professional circle and get connected with people in senior positions. Had I taken this second approach, I would have arguably reached out to him first, having seen his extensive background in rhetoric and argumentation in healthcare contexts, working closely on policy issues and government reports, and most striking—serving as an advisor for a graduate student whose dissertation topic aligns closely with my own. It was in this newly formed relationship as mentor and mentee, that I could form my research project. Dr. Mitchell’s expertise allowed for the suggestion to work on one specific policy scenario, the 2019 Congressional Hearing “Overcoming Racial Disparities and Social Determinants in the Maternal Mortality Crisis”, and focus on the key policy idea ‘framing’ and methodology ‘qualitative coding analysis’. This mere, yet ingenious, suggestion was truly the foundation that needed to be set in order to progress. Without his guidance, arriving at such a project on my own would have been near impossible. Or at the very least, would have taken me much longer to discover. Thus is the beauty of an experienced and approachable mentor— taking their advice can speed up your progress, giving you just enough information to work off of. This is particularly useful, as in my case, when you need expertise in narrowing down the scope of your project and what research methodologies will best support your work.

Once these essential elements of my research experience were identified, we developed a work plan [see below] and delved into my project. This is the stage I am currently preoccupied with. In working through the Congressional Hearing’s transcript, I am simultaneously reading recommended and popular policy materials that help strengthen my understanding of identifying frames and interpreting them. Excerpts from Schon & Rein’s 1994 Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies, Miller & Crabtree’s 1999 Doing Qualitative Research, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies’ 2010 Demographic Changes, A View From California: Implications for Framing Health Disparities have greatly advanced my understanding of policy and framing in the specific context of health.

Going forward, I am increasingly excited as I am able to get a taste of what a career in health policy and maternal/child health may look like for me. I am also hopeful that, in having the opportunity to explore this work in college, I am building a sturdy background in rhetoric which I envision serving me well for a future in analyzing health policy issues.

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