Common Research Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Everyone—including eminent scientists like Dr. Bruce Banner—makes research mistakes.

Popular culture is littered with stories of research mishaps. Kevlar, superglue, cellophane, Post-it notes, photographs, and the phonograph were all the result of lab “blunders.” Research mistakes also led to the creation of the fictional superheroes Doctor Manhattan and the Incredible Hulk.

Tufts GSASstudents have made research mistakes themselves. And while these errors didn’t result in a mass-produced commercial product or leave them with supernatural abilities, these mishaps did provide something equally as impressive: experience. We reached out to Tufts arts and sciences graduate students and alumni to find out what research missteps they made when they were starting out, how they dealt with them, and how they can be avoided.

Ready…Set…Stop!

Remember…you can’t hurry love or research.

Everyone knows the phrase, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” The same can be said for graduate school, except the race lasts anywhere from two to six years depending on the degree—master of arts, master of science, or doctorate—a student is pursuing. So, when it comes to your research it helps to slow way down; this approach could mean hours, if not weeks, of saved time.

“I didn’t have a clear enough sense of my dissertation’s argument before I started writing,” said Nicole Flynn, an English doctoral student researching the connection between temporality and genre in early, twentieth-century England. “I think a lot of students spend too long on the prospectus or proposal state; you can’t figure everything out before you move onto writing chapters. I wish I had spent a little more time researching the current state of the field and how my project fit into that.”

Added history graduate student Joshua Savala, whose thesis focuses on the 1906 Valparaíso Chile earthquake, the state’s response, and working class solidarity.

“My research involved some time abroad, so my mistakes may be different from other graduate students,” said Savala. “If I could do it over again, I would change a few things. First, I would have done a thorough search of the Library of Congress and other United States-based libraries to find out if any of the newspapers I needed to read were microfilmed and available here so I could skip them while abroad. Second, although I did plenty of secondary research prior to going to Chile, I would have done at least twice as much. With more ideas and general knowledge, my time abroad could have been much more focused; I could have focused more, and had more time to search for more obscure archival materials. Third, I would have applied for funding outside of Tufts for my research. I did get research funding from GSAS and the School of Engineering, which helped quite a bit, but when your research involves a flight to South America and all that is involved with living somewhere else—food, transportation, etc.—my Tufts research funding could only cover a portion of the cost.”

Go Digital

Anyone’s who been through graduate school (or is in the thick of it) knows that there’s a lot of reading. Journal articles, case studies, and papers become key components—in addition to a student’s own research—for future dissertations or theses. Therefore, it’s essential to have a good system in place to organize individual documents, citations, and so forth. Effective organization of source materials can be the difference between having an article at your virtual fingertips and spending forty-five minutes (or more) searching through a stack of papers. A practical solution, suggests Tufts GSAS students, is to go digital and also use bibliographic software.

Going digital at the beginning of your graduate career can translate into hours of time saved.

“I wish I had started to keep everything digitally from the beginning,” said Christine Lattin, a GSAS biology doctoral student researching stress response in birds. “I would print articles out and then write notes on them, but you really have to useZotero, RefWorks, or Endnote to help organize everything. I spent the first year or two of graduate school printing everything out and putting it all in binders. Now, I’m in the process of taking all of the papers out and digitizing them. I really wish I had been doing this from the beginning. Endnote is great. I will download a pdf, import it as an endnote, and then I’m able to pull the whole citation straight from the pdf. I don’t have to type in all the different author names anymore.”

Alexander Keyel, a fellow biology doctoral student researching habitat loss and fragmentation at local, regional, and continental scales, added that, “the scanners at Tufts’ Tisch Library make searchable pdfs—to be fair, they didn’t do this when I started at Tufts. I suggest using Endnote and you’ll understand why after you have reformated the references in a journal article for the third time. I would also learn how to program; it helps with so many things, but this may just be because I do a lot of statistics/GIS. Finally, save your work frequently and back up your data.”

(Editor’s Note: The Tisch Library offers workshops on EndNote and RefWorks. More information can be found at http://www.library.tufts.edu/tisch/ra/class_descriptions.htm)

Context Matters

For graduate students (especially those in the social sciences) whose research involves communities, it’s critical to understand how these environments operate so the research process can go smoothly.

“Try and understand the contexts within which you conduct your research,” said Brian Gravel, who earned a Ph.D. in education from GSAS in 2011 and holds a bachelor of science and a master of science in engineering from Tufts. “All disciplines of research have their own specific contextual factors—social, political, historical—and these factors influence how that research is carried out. They should not limit you in any way, but should be understood and taken into account when designing research studies. Working in schools means working in complex social settings with communities, with families, and within specific cultures. Making honest attempts to engage with and understand these contexts can only make you a more authentic, compassionate, and effective researcher.”

Gravel, whose dissertation was titled, “Elementary students’ multiple representations of their ideas about air,” provided an example of one misstep he made during his research.

“In my pilot study, I was interviewing students one-on-one,” he said. “I was attempting this work in December in Boston, when students are constantly sick, teachers are out sick, and there is a lot commotion in schools as they prepare for winter break. I was too rigid in my expectations for how this work would play out, and I struggled to collect the kind of data I hoped to get. For my dissertation research, I spent more time with teachers and administrators to find appropriate times to work with students.”

Don’t Be Shy

Standing on the sidelines (or alone in a field) can profoundly impact your research. And not in a good way.

Courses, exams, teaching, and research are all key features of graduate school, as are conversations (intellectual and otherwise) with fellow students, faculty members, and advisers. But when it comes to research questions—most notably, when problems or other issues arise— many new graduate students remain silent, opting to try to solve the problem themselves instead of asking for help. This approach, like many others detailed in this post, can result in frustration and lost time.

“I was too shy about asking for help from faculty,” said Nicole Flynn. “We are a small department and faculty members have been coming and going at key points in my writing process. This made it difficult to have consistent guidance, but I wish I had been more proactive about reaching out to the faculty members who were there. I overcame this by being more interactive with my committee members as my project has continued. I’ve sent them less polished writing, questions, and ideas I wanted to bounce off someone. I forget that they have seen this project develop over time, too, and, sometimes, they know it better than I do. It’s so helpful to hear your adviser tell you, ‘I think this is what you’re saying here,’ and think, ‘I am? Yes, I am!’”

Added a fellow doctoral student, “I think my main mistake, and one that I’m still working on, is not having enough communication with my adviser, committee members, and labmates. Sometimes you run into problems that you can’t solve. My first instinct has always been to keep working until I solve the problem, but there are times when a visit to my adviser or another professor could have quickly helped me resolve the issue.”

Alexander Keyel agrees that the best lines of communication are open ones.

“Think about what you are doing, what question you are asking, and whether the data you are gathering are necessary and sufficient to answer the question,” he said. “Make sure there is good communication between you and your adviser, and listen to advice when people suggest something might be too complicated. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt something complicated, but it’s better to know what you are getting yourself into. Back up plans are also useful.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

We want to hear from you! Do you know other common research mistakes and how to avoid them? Was this post helpful? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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10 Responses to Common Research Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

  1. lynne pepall says:

    Its easy to get lost in research and your GPS is your advisor, your faculty and your peers. Never be afraid to ask “directions”–we have all been lost, and when researchers get to where they wanted to go they have all had some help along the way!

  2. Jana Chaudhuri says:

    Graduate school work can be so isolating, so having work dates with others was key for me. I often had writing days with another student to keep me on track, and did that everyday when I was in the thick of my dissertation. The writing retreats offered by Academic Resources were not available when I was in grad school – I wish they were – but a fantastic idea.

  3. Don’t forget that librarians are a great resource also–there’s a librarian expert for each department and program, or you can call/email/text/IM or just walk up and talk to the librarian on duty. Frequently we’ve already laid out a set of resources for your discipline or topic in our Research Guides , which can be helpful when you’re trying to get an overview or work in a new discipline. Sometimes it helps to brainstorm a search strategy (can’t stress how helpful and often neglected this step is), or to get independent confirmation that you’ve looked in all the right places.
    –Chris Strauber, Research and Instruction Librarian for Classics, English, Philosophy, and Religion

  4. Tamara Turner says:

    I have a question: I am a graduate student in ethnomusicology and did a long final paper on a local group of musicians here in Boston. They would like to publish portions of it on their website. I wonder if this could be a problem for me in the future or if this is a great way to get “free press” so to speak. It is unlikely–although not impossible–that I would ever want to write an article from the paper for publishing but, if I were to do so, would portions of this paper being “published” elsewhere on the web deter me from all future publishing? Thanks!

    • Hi Tamara,

      Thanks for checking out the post. We’re going to put this question to the Grad Community on LinkedIn. We will also reach out to chemistry grad alum Heather Tierney who has some experience in this area (http://gs.as.tufts.edu/about/news/Winter2011/chemistryEthics.htm).

      -GradMatters Blog Team

      • Hello Tamara,

        Graduate alumna Heather Tierney was able to answer your question:

        “I work for a non-profit chemical society publisher, so this may not be completely applicable to your field, but I am happy to comment based on my experience.

        There are 2 considerations to take into account:

        1) If the website is requesting that you sign any type of copyright transfer form. It is unlikely that this would be the case; however, you retain copyright for your writing unless you sign it over to someone else (as you normally would when it is published in a journal or book). In the case where you sign a copyright form, for any future use you would then have to request permission from the website (or publisher, etc.) to reuse the text, even though you wrote it.

        2) Your later point about the text being “published” online is tricky, even if you don’t sign any type of copyright agreement. This is entirely based on the Prior Publication Policy where you submit your work, which varies largely from publisher to publisher, and even from journal to journal within the same publisher. I would take a look at some of the journals you read for similar material, and look at the journal’s website for a “guide to authors”. These should include the journal-specific prior publication policy, which will give you an idea of what the policies look like in your field. For chemistry journals, most will not disallow text from websites as prior publication, but many will ask that you disclose where any of the text was previously published upon submission in your cover letter, including websites, media sources, or conference proceedings.”

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