A PhD and research methods

On Tuesday morning at 9:00 am, I walked into class. A professor was writing with chalk on the left side of the board. Students were chatting amongst themselves.

I settled into a seat and turned to stare at the board. The professor turned to us and said, “Welcome to class.”

Four weeks earlier, I resigned from my role as director of communications for the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. I had given myself four weeks to come to terms with the fact that I was radically changing the course of my life, moving from full-time employee to full-time PhD student.

Sitting in my very first class, listening to Dr. John Greene quote the renowned American psychologist and philosopher William James who describes our world as a “blooming, buzzing confusion” that we can attempt to make sense of through research methods, I had that extremely rare and extraordinary feeling of certainty that I was exactly where I was supposed to be in that exact moment.

This blooming, buzzing confusion, explained Dr. Greene, is a vast, messy garden that we can compare to life. Explosions of color, flora, fauna, scents, textures and any number of bits and pieces are all jumbled together. The chaos of life drives our primary need for research methods. Our world appears to us as a mass of confusion and research methods are what enable us to create some order in the chaos.

I loved being there in that classroom, and I loved this explanation. I’ll start with the latter. We as humans seek patterns in the world around us. Research methods give us tools to accurately discern patterns – patterns that can improve our lives or give us insights into what appear to be impossible problems or simply fascinate and delight us.

To the former, I loved being in that classroom because I loved that explanation. I decided to go back to get my PhD because of research. After close to a decade of working in a range of roles, from international media production to new media to communication and outreach, and after having lived in a vast range of geographical locations, from Washington, DC to Madrid to New York City to Windhoek (if you know me, you know this is the shortlist), I have amassed a huge repertoire of experiences. And basically, they all tell me that we as humans are, for the most part, well-meaning. But we are also very irrational quite a lot of the time. We draw conclusions where they don’t exist. We misinterpret situations. We see causality where there’s barely correlation. But despite that, we’re always on the prowl for truth. But what is that truth? And how to we observe it? How do we find meaning within it? (or do you even believe there’s a truth? Some argue there isn’t. To which I say, what are you hunting then?)

As Dr. Greene’s lecture wore on, and I listened to his detailed, thoughtful and considerate explanations of why we study research methods, (1) to wring order out of chaos and (2) to build a cumulative body of knowledge, I couldn’t help but start to jot down notes on questions I’d like to answer, and chaotic matters in which I’d like to wring a little order.

I don’t know what answers I will find or how much chaos I can actually tame, but I’ll certainly try. This week marks the start of four years in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, where I’ll spend my time as a Ross Fellow and PhD student. Over the next years, I’ll be digging into questions on communication, particularly at the intersection of media, technology and society. I’ll also still be doing work around my former area, food and agriculture, as I did and continue to find this space deeply meaningful and critical to a healthy global society.

If this makes you yawn already, feel free to unsubscribe (if you’re signed up to get these posts to your email). We don’t all find the same things interesting. Thank God. And we get enough emails as it is, so don’t let me bog you down by adding to that tally.

But if you are even the tiniest bit interested, I’d also like to be the first to encourage you to stay tuned. I’ll do my best to translate some of the things I’m learning and the research I’m conducting into interesting and relevant blog posts. It’s important to me. There’s got to be a bridge between research and life. So hold me accountable, ok? And who knows, maybe we can learn something together.

 

6 Comments

  1. I don’t need your stinkin’ science or even social science to know things. I can just cherry pick the “facts” I believe are true. My gut requires no research! Evidence just gets in the way. #Trump2020

    Like

  2. Nice post!

    This is why I like the scientific method so much. It has the capacity to bring order to chaos. More than that, it enables “argument from evidence” rather than “argument from belief” – a philosophy I feel is sorely lacking in much of main-stream discourse these days.

    Anyway, glad things are going well so far!

    Like

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