“Bridging the gap between current knowledge and ignorance…”

During my reading, I came across a passage in a medical research article –

To find new and useful answers to important problems that have not already been resolved, you need to know a lot about the problem and precisely where the boundary between current knowledge and ignorance lies…without knowing the current state of knowledge, it is difficult to know whether one is heading in the right ‘next step’ direction

Haynes, 2006, p. 882

While Haynes’ thoughts apply to any novice researcher, they resonate with me. In mentoring doctoral students, I always start my first conversation with a student by asking two questions –

  • In which business domain do you have the most experience or expertise?
  • Within that domain, what is your research interest?

The first question prompts them to focus on a domain. It’s sad to say this but sometimes I have to explain to students that business is not a domain per se but a term that encompasses domains such as Accounting, Finance, Management and Marketing. Once that’s clarified, the student often gets it and we move on to Q2. However, other times I have to delve further into their academic background (e.g., undergraduate, master’s) and their work experience. If they’re academic generalists and they’ve supervised employees, then I propose the management discipline because hopefully they’ve been exposed to general literature on management. Plus, it would take them too long to become a domain expert in the other areas. If they have specific domain experience or expertise, it should be a logical connection between Q1 and Q2, right? Unfortunately, the answer is No.

What I’ve found is that doctoral students don’t have sufficient knowledge in their discipline, or haven’t retained the knowledge from graduate school. Many can come up with a tentative, overarching research question, which is fine to start; however, the length of time between step 1 and step 2, developing a problem statement, seems to take an eternity. Rather than being well-read in the current literature in their discipline, they look for research that aligns with their world view or, worse, mischaracterize research to fit their need. This leads to student frustration as they often feel the University is taking their money but not giving them anything for it (anything = approve what is submitted). This can cause tension between the student and the chairperson (and University), and can lead to a student requesting a change in chairperson. I call this an “academic opinion-shopping,” where a student seeks to find a faculty member that will “understand” their situation and approve their research topic. Sometimes, a University will put pressure on faculty to approve research to “push students forward to the next phase,” increase graduation rates, and reduce student complaints. What happens then? A newly minted Doctor of Something who doesn’t realize how the research process operates.

References:

Haynes. R. B. (2006). Forming research questions. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology 59(9), 881-886. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclinepi.2006.06.006

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