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A Brief Introduction to The Research Life

Editors’s Note:  The following is a post from Professor Steve Sawyer, the Associate Dean for Research and Doctoral Programs here at the iSchool.  This post is the first in a series focused on research.  

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Image from wtsinternational.org

One distinguishing character of great universities like Syracuse is the attention paid to research.  Since most of us last thought about science and the research process as part of an introductory science or psychology course the first year in college (and first learned about research from our school media specialist), public understanding of science is typically pretty limited. Mostly, science is something someone else does.  We generally like science because it helps us, somehow, and are proud our alma mater is well-known for the research done by its faculty and their students.

Why is Research Important and What Does it Look Like? 

Scientists are worried because ignorance is not bliss, its trouble for science.  In a world where we are getting comfortable with fact-less debates and the concept of yelling at each other as legitimate forms of discourse, science seems so quaint. We’re keen for the fast pace of tweeting, scanning blogs (like this one), and image-driven thinking, so the years-long publication cycle of 10,000 technical-jargon-like word papers with few tables and even fewer images that characterizes scientific publications seems other-worldly.

headshot of Steve Sawyer
Steve Sawyer

Scientists inhabit this other world quite happily. Research-oriented faculty are expected to spend from 40% to 100% of their 40-hour workweek on research: most spend another 15-20 hours each week pursuing their scholarly interests because its one of the things that drew them into the profession.  In saying this, I note an increasing number of faculty are not hired to be research-focused (at the iSchool, about 40% of our faculty are not expected to pursue research as part of their contract for employment. This is typical of many research-focused institutions and a big change from 30 years ago, when most faculty had a research expectation).  Faculty who pursue research are increasingly expected to seek funding (grants) and all of them work with students (doctoral, masters and undergraduate) to pursue distinct projects and publish this work for others.  Most use the 10 weeks of summer (when faculty are not on the University’s payroll) to devote to their science.

Research as a Life’s Work

Image of notebook and pen
Photo by Jackie Barr.

Far from being dispassionate work, science is invigorating and often a deeply personal quest. The work is wonderfully challenging, allows you to interact with really smart people, and provides the chance to make a difference for others.  Most scientists see themselves as problem-solvers – unpacking puzzles and figuring out things. Others are more interested in understanding why things are problematic – focused on characterizing problems and framing issues.  I’m more a problem-framer myself (even though I also know problem-solvers are more visible. You can see more of my work at http://sawyer.syr.edu).  This reflection illustrates that research is also a choice. The modern research university is built on a 900-year tradition of independent scholarship:  researchers pick what they want to study – it’s an open intellectual market of the kind that free-market-lovers seek – the basis of what’s become known as “academic freedom:” the ability to study without control by one’s superiors and a cornerstone of academic tenure.   As an aside, academic freedom is often mis-construed as freedom in the classroom. However, faculty are responsible to their employers for meeting curricular objectives: they don’t have the same freedom remit in instruction!

Given the level of personal investment in doing research, and the importance of sharing science, why don’t we see faculty talking about it as often as, say, sports?  Having spent 20 years learning how to write a convincing 10,000 word article to make one point, its hard to think in more manageable bits (even my blog post is getting long…).  Having read 3000 of these articles, it is hard to catch up the non-scientist on current findings and issues.  And, sometimes the research work just leads to something that isn’t that interesting. Research is about discovery: it’s a risky business…  Increasingly, research is also about synthesis and we are training future scholars to focus on integration, implementation and evaluation (a good thing)!

All this is to say, science is one of the great things we can do as a society, it is an incredibly valuable contribution (in toto) and it’s great work to do.  So, my current thinking is that with future posts, I’ll move from talking abstractly about science and research to talking about particular research activities and contributions from faculty and students at the iSchool.

It would be great to hear what research topics and questions you’d like to discuss next. Please share in the comments below.

Steve Sawyer

Professor, Associate Dean for Research and Director of PhD Program at Syracuse University's iSchool.

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