Bridging the Gap in Scholarly Research Skills

Fife.jpgAsk eAIR covers topics about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. This month’s question is answered by Jonathan D. Fife, Visiting Professor in Higher Education at Virginia Tech and former series editor of the ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Series. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Subsribers are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.

Dear Jon: My educational background doesn't lend itself to the types of scholarly research frequently conducted by IR professionals. That is, I am not formally trained in statistics or research methodology. What can I do to bridge the gap in skills and knowledge?

Many IR professionals enter the field without formal training in statistics or research methodology. Some go on to obtain advanced degrees that included statistics and research methodology, but many more develop their skills through on-the-job learning and self-education. The following suggestions are some of the steps that will add structure and speed to the self-education approach to becoming a skilled institutional researcher.

Develop a comprehensive library. To be a good researcher, you must know your subject as well as you know your research skills; your library should contain several categories of books. I offer a few examples for each category, but it is best for you to talk with your colleagues to find out what they have found most valuable.

  • Higher education as an entity: You must understand your subject both holistically as well as by its specific parts. Therefore, a subscription to The Chronicle of Higher Education is a must. Since higher education is value-based and process-driven, an understanding of its history and how these values developed is crucial in developing the context for your research. Suggested resources include A History of American Higher Education (2nd edition, John R. Thelin, 2011) and Higher Education in America (Derek Bok, 2013).

  • Research on current higher education issues: This research is primarily found in the refereed journals, including Research in Higher Education, New Directions for Institutional Research, and Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. These publications will provide you with a better understanding of what issues have been the focus of research and what research methodologies and statistical analyses are currently being used.

  • Specific institutional research issues and practices: The best single source to have in your library is The Handbook of Institutional Research (Richard D. Howard, Gerald W. McLaughlin, and William E. Knight, 2012).

  • Basic books on statistics and research methodology: The easiest source for these books are the textbooks used in your college's introductory courses on statistics and research found in your campus bookstore.

  • Identify a topic to research. Assuming you are developing on-the-job or non-classroom skills, the primary way to learn and fine-tune research and statistical methods is to start using them. If you need these skills for job-related tasks, you probably already have a topic assigned to you. However, if you have the luxury of selecting a topic, follow these basic principles:

  • Pick a topic for which others want answers. A topic that is of interest only to you will result in very little visibility and limited publishing possibilities.

  • Pick a topic that makes your palms sweat. The greater your interest in your topic, the greater your passion, and the more your palms sweat with excitement, the greater your chance that you will complete your study and submit it for publication. In other words: no passion = no publication.

Find an experienced partner/co-author. A new researcher has a better chance to acquire skills and complete a study if he or she teams up with someone with experience. This could be a colleague in your office who is willing to advise you, especially with an offer of co-authorship. Don't be afraid to offer first authorship to a partner if it’s appropriate to do so—the experience will be worth it. Another option is to look for someone who has research skills and is either interested in the topic or in adding a publication to his or her C.V. This could be someone who has a personal or professional stake in the topic or is a graduate student who has research expertise.

Consider the accessibility of your data. Base the methodology of your first few studies on the accessibility and control of the data. If a database already exists related to your study, be sure that you have relevant permissions and total control over the data you use and how you can analyze them. Frequently, a researcher starts a study only to learn later that some other person or entity can “turn off” the source of the data due to disagreements over the purpose of the study or fear about the study's findings and conclusions. The less threatening or more helpful others find the study, the more likely you are to have unobstructed access to data.

Ensure that the methodology produces findings that are believable. In your first few research studies, use a methodology that is based on trusted data. For example, if survey methodology is used, consideration should be given to the appeal of the study to the respondents. The lower the appeal, the lower the response rate. Develop a methodology that will produce a minimum of a 50-percent response rate with follow-up of non-respondents. Anything less will produce results that are easily discounted by those who object to the study's conclusions.

Skills are gained by doing, learning, and doing again. In summary, the way to “bridge the gap” in skills and knowledge related to research methodology and statistical analysis is to create your own reference library, identify a study you'd like to conduct, find an experienced colleague to be your partner and mentor, and jump into the shallow part of the pool. Use your library as needed. You will find yourself learning and achieving faster than you believed possible. But never forget about passion; if your topic doesn’t make your palms sweat, it is unlikely you will achieve your skill development and publishing goals.

Do you have suggestions for “bridging the gap” in skills and knowledge for scholarly research? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.



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Total Comments: 4
Vennessa posted on 1/15/2015 12:45 PM
These are great suggestions, Jonathan! People who don't have a strong background in statistics could also benefit from MOOCs as part of their self-education. Many of the ones I've seen are introductory-level statistics, but MITx does offer one called The Analytics Edge on edX that covers more advanced topics such as linear and logistic regression and clustering. There is a session starting in March, if anyone is interested.
Mary posted on 1/15/2015 12:49 PM
A dear john letter for all of us. Again, I like the hint of humor added to a sometimes grave subject for the IR professional in me, sweaty palms and all. Boy I do sweat sometimes, so I must like what I'm doing. Good to know. I'm not alone. The pointers on where to go with the energy of not really feeling like you can navigate is very helpful, thanks.
Amy posted on 1/15/2015 4:35 PM
This is great information for new hires as well as ideas for experienced IR folks.
Karen posted on 1/15/2015 9:34 PM
Some good information to share with those Interested in IR or who "fall into" IR. Wish someone had shared this with me when I began. Most important advice is to ask others in IR for their suggestions. I've never meet a profession more will ing to help!