How I am spending my Winter “break”

Sanjay Srivastava, a University of Oregon psychology professor and author of The Hardest Science, recently posted a Brent Roberts essay that describes my life as a research professor.

Brent poses a question…

Recently, I was asked for the 17th time by a family member, “So, what are you going to do this summer?”  As usual, I answered, “research.”  And, as usual, I was met with that quizzical look that says, “What the heck is research anyway?”

It struck me in retrospect that I’ve done a pretty poor job of describing what research is to my family and friends.  So, I thought it might be a good idea to write an open letter that tries explaining research a little better.  You deserve an explanation.  So do other people, like parents of students and the general public.  You all pay a part of our salary, either through your taxes or the generous support of your kid’s education, and therefore should know where your money goes.

He describes what a research professor does…

Let me expand on that latter point a little before delving into what I mean by scientific research. As a professor at a major research university I am paid to do three things: Research, teaching, and service.  On the teaching side of things, we often teach what appears to be an appallingly small number of classes.  That said much of our teaching is done in the old-fashioned artisan-apprentice fashion—one-on-one with students.  We have countless meetings throughout our week outside of the classroom working with undergraduate and graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers teaching them how to do research.  In terms of service, we are tasked with helping to run our department and university, and with running the guilds to which we belong.  I can expand on that later if you like.  That said, one thing you may not have known is that at major research universities teaching and research service constitute less than 50% of our job description, combined.  You may expect us to take summers and winter breaks off, but our universities are smiling as we apply ourselves to what they hired us to do, research—often when they are not even paying us.  There’s nothing like free labor.

And the scientific research process….

So what do we do when we do this thing called research?  I can’t speak for all types of scientists, but here are what I believe to be the basic phases of the generic research project:

  1. We are posed with a problem, challenge, riddle, or question that needs to be solved or answered.  For example, Teresa might ask:  “How can an employer help workers to see work as more meaningful?”
  2. We come up with a method for answering the question.
  3. We assemble the tools and resources needed to conduct our research.
  4. We run the study intended to answer our question.
  5. We analyze the data that comes from our study.
  6. We write up our findings and send the paper off to a journal where it is reviewed by several (typically three) anonymous peers who, along with the journal editor, decide whether the way we answered the question provides an adequate answer and thus provides an incremental advancement to our knowledge.  If they think we did add something to the knowledge pool, then Hallelujah, our work gets published.

Of course, there is a lot more to it, and you can read all about it HERE.