Research Process, Part I – Choosing a Topic

I mentioned in my January update post that I’m starting work on a project for publication. I thought it might be helpful to me, and hopefully some of my readers, to write about my research and writing processes as I go through them. My intention with this series of posts is to:

  1. Think through my research process and articulate it in a coherent way.
  2. Share what I’ve learned – often through trial and error – about doing research. There are many ways to go about doing research; mine is just one way. Finding what works and what doesn’t is a personal process that can take years.
  3. Identify areas for improvement for my process.

The first stage in the process is the most nebulous – identifying a research topic. I started a list of possible topics several years ago, and add to it sporadically as I have ideas. (Or cross ideas off if they don’t interest me anymore.) At the moment, though, the project I’m starting on is a revision of part of my Master’s thesis. So while it isn’t quite the same as coming up with an entirely new-to-me idea, it’ll serve as a useful example. I see it as a theme-and-variations topic, or an explanation of the continued evolution of my thinking.

In the original project I didn’t have enough time or space to include more than a minimal discussion of key terms like ethnicity, ethnic, race, and Buddhism(s) to situate my arguments. This is high on my list of things to ‘fix’ in this new version. The challenge for my revisions, as I’ll talk about in the next post, is to a) not get side-tracked into a lengthy review of the current literature about ethnic, ethnicity, race, or racism, and therefore b) keep it relevant to the overall topic. In order to be able to have a more complete discussion of these terms and concepts as they relate to my specific project, I’ll need to make room by trimming back another area.

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Here are some questions that may be helpful if you’re trying to think of a project:

Why are you looking for a project? In other words, are you:

  • Writing a paper for a class?
  • Looking for a thesis/dissertation topic?
  • Presenting at a conference?
  • Writing a journal article?
  • Writing a book?
  • Are you looking to contribute to an existing academic blog or other public scholarly discussion?

n.b. I’ll be honest and say that I have no experience finding a topic for a book length project, and only very preliminary ideas on crafting a dissertation length project.

Why you’re looking for a project and how long the finished product needs to be will help (to a certain extent) determine the scope and parameters. For example: I participated in a conference at Claremont Graduate University in 2013. The call for papers (CFP) intrigued me because the theme was “women in dharma traditions.” I had written a short paper for one of my grad courses on gender and narrative in two tales from the Dhammapada Commentary. I re-read my original paper, read my professor’s comments/suggestions, made some notes for myself, and wrote a proposal. Once my proposal was accepted, I identified specifically what I wanted to argue in my presentation, knowing that I’d have 15-20 minutes. My finished product was written with a conference presentation in mind – the tone was more conversational than something I’d write for publication, I didn’t include extended quotes from sources, or bother with foot/endnotes. When there was discussion a few months later of gathering the conference papers into an edited volume, I knew it would require yet another round of substantial edits.

[Side note: I sometimes think this is why conference papers can be dull to listen to – the presenter doesn’t have time to be writing multiple versions of the same paper, and winds up reading an extract of a paper intended for publication. Completely understandable given how over-busy everyone is, but it doesn’t mean it’s a useful or enjoyable presentation.]

Who is your audience?
Answering the first question will probably also answer this one. Writing for a group of specialists in your field is very different than writing for a general academic or non-academic audience.

Is your research topic idea in your primary area of research?
If not, you may need to allow some extra time in the research stage to bring yourself up to speed.

What other commitments do you have coming up? How much time do you have to dedicate to this project?I’m not recommending you don’t choose a topic because of time constraints; however, being aware of other obligations is a necessary part of being organized as you go forward.

What are you arguing or trying to prove?
(I’ll talk more about this in a later post)

Does the idea excite you?
This question may seem unusual at first. I’ve discovered though that my best projects have been those that I am excited about, interested in, or which speak to me. Not all projects will be exciting in the same way (or at all), and in my experience, I reach a stage in every project where I just want it to be done. I admire – and yes, envy – those people who can keep writing and researching on the same topic for years and years. Variety in topics keeps me engaged,  not to mention giving me an opportunity to learn something new. In the case of the conference paper I mentioned above, enough time had passed between the initial project for a course and the conference that I was able to look at my work with new eyes, a different perspective, and see areas for change and improvement.

So, the bottom line is: what are you interested in, and what will you do with it?

Up next: Part II – Sources!

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