I was a professional journalist when I was 22 years old. Some of us probably have great-grandparents who were married, had children and were managing a farm before they were 20 years old.
Today, students bound for academic careers are very likely not to do any original research as undergraduates and then, in graduate school, may spend years gathering data for their supervisors’ research before they undertake their own project. Some time ago, it occurred to me to ask myself whether my students might not benefit from taking on a bigger challenge.
Since then, I’ve evolved methods that, as far as I know, are unconventional, but that I find help my students, both graduate and undergraduate to maximize the contribution they make to our research, while serving as an excellent teaching tool, and boosting their career prospects.
My method involves subdividing my research into free-standing sub-projects, assigning each student one or more sub-projects, and instructing them to do the whole project, from literature review, through document collection and interviews, to the production of a final draft. I tell them that I expect them to produce a draft that is as close to a publishable article as they can make it. In a number of cases, this procedure has enabled me to send one of my senior undergraduates to graduate school with a cv that already includes a co-authored academic publication.
In my experience, however, it’s not possible to achieve this result simply by delegating the research and writing. Rather, I find it necessary to track their work through the entire process and offer input throughout. In the process, my research work becomes a teaching job as well, and I experience the satisfaction of passing my research skills on to someone else.
The details of how I work with any given research assistant varies with the particular project, the employee and the time-frame. The most typical case is one in which I am working with two to four students while they spend 12 to 14 summer weeks working full-time on one of my projects each. Following is the typical sequence of events in such a summer project.
On their first day of work I invite my assistants to a breakfast meeting in the Faculty and Staff Club at our university and spend the morning with them, orienting them to every aspect of their research job, and setting up a work schedule for them. Each student is assigned a project, with a set of research questions and an analytical framework within which to pursue them.
I require them, by 5 pm every Friday, to submit an e-mail describing what they’ve accomplished in the previous week. I also require them to do electronic transcripts of all their interviews, and send those to me. I read through all that material on Sunday and respond to their e-mails and interview transcripts with suggestions and corrections.
At about the end of Week Four, I book a room for a roundtable session, in which each of the research assistants describes what she has been doing and raises any problems encountered. We talk it over.
At around Week Eight, I schedule a seminar session, at which each assistant is required to do a presentation of his main findings as well as a tentative enumeration of the likely conclusions of the research. Each presentation is followed by a critical discussion. After the session, the assistants are expected to go to work on their drafts.
Two weeks before the deadline I schedule one-on-one meetings with each of the assistants, to hear from them how they’re doing with their drafts and to offer suggestions.
Given the amount of my work that goes into the students’ research, as well as the amount, described below, in the writing, I doubt that I put any less work into a publishable paper the way I do it than I would if I simply asked the students to collect data and then used it to do my writing. If anything, my approach may be more labour-intensive.
But there is an important educational benefit for the student in being led, step by step, through the entire process of professional research and writing. The benefit to my research comes from the fact that nothing is more motivating than knowing that one has responsibility for a final product. I believe my approach makes my employees think harder, feel more invested in their work and work harder than they would if their function were limited to data collection.
PRODUCTION OF THE FINAL DRAFT
What I get at deadline time varies in quality. Generally, the papers are a lot better than the work the students would produce in an honours or graduate seminar, but they are usually not anywhere nearly ready for publication. I start by reading through the papers I’ve received, making note of the findings and then considering what there is in the findings that is likely to attract the interest of a journal.
I then consider the various possible venues for publication. As anyone with experience in academic publication knows, each journal has an at least partly unspoken set of expectations regarding the kinds of articles that will be considered for publication. Part of my job is to match findings with possible theoretical frameworks and put both of those elements together with journal expectations.
Next, I go through the publishable material with a fine-toothed comb, to fix up any mistakes, check facts, do any needed additional research, and restructure the organization and emphasis of the paper so that the elements of the paper work together to produce an argument of the kind that my chosen journal will consider interesting. In the best case, the end result is a genuine co-authorship, an article that starts from ideas I’ve put forward, but that, when it is complete, embodies the best research and the best ideas we jointly are capable of producing.
Some people are better at research and writing than others, but my experience suggests that, if you can start a Ph.D. thesis at age 26, you can take on a fully-fledged research challenge at age 20 or 21. We need to trust our students more and expect more of them.