I’d say about once a fortnight I get an email from someone who wants to get into research in some way. They might have a good idea that they think would make a nice research project. They might specifically want to become a researcher themselves. They might be working on something that could do with research input – for example as an evaluation of a service. They might already be a researcher, and be looking to move to the next level (Masters to PhD, PhD to postdoc) or for a new collaboration.
I frequently find these queries quite difficult to respond to. Not because I don’t welcome them – frequently people have superb ideas – but because helping someone work out, let alone follow, all the steps they need to achieve their goal can become a very hefty job indeed. Ultimately, it’s one I don’t have time to do while also supporting the team who already work with me.
So, as usual when I have a problem like this, I thought I would try to write a blog to help signpost next steps. I want to empower more people to be involved in research, by giving them some good places to start, before reaching out for more targeted help.
First, a bit of context
Here are a few things it is probably worth saying up front about the research context – especially for new folk moving into a research, or researcher-adjacent, role for the first time.
1. Money: Yes Universities are rich and researchers are, relatively speaking, well paid (though PhD students stipends are skimpy). But this doesn’t mean that I have money lying around. All of the money at my disposal is ring-fenced for specific purposes – it was awarded by funders for specific projects and it needs to be accounted for, every penny, and anything leftover is returned at the end of the award. Applying for new money requires there to be a suitable funding scheme available and someone having the time and committment to apply, and this does not guarantee that an award will be made.
2. HR & Suppliers: Hiring a new person requires months of work – setting up a job description, getting it graded (i.e. deciding what salary this kind of job requires), advertising and selecting a candidate, then setting up their contract an induction. Likewise, new suppliers – like third sector organisations or commercial companies – need to go through a formal registration process to be added to the University books. So even if we have money for this research idea, it can take a long time to pay someone to do the work, especially if we want to hire a new person.
3. Volunteers: Appointing volunteers to work within the University is also easier said than done, largely with good reason. Even if you are not being paid, the University takes its responsibilities seriously and so volunteers need to be approved, appointed and inducted via a formal process.
4. Ethics: Even with everyone in place, a piece of research led from within a university will frequently need review by an ethics panel. Exceptions would be any kind of review of existing literature review, and some kinds of analysis when working with data that exist already in the public domain. But in a lot of cases, applying for ethics and getting it will be a big part of the research process.
All these things mean that it is extremely hard to just pick up a research idea, do a small piece of work, and move on. In fact, I would probably find it easier to engage with a plan for a large-scale and ambitious research plan than something “quick and easy” – which will often in truth be slow and difficult.
So, is there anything we CAN do?
Absolutely. The key is to work out exactly what kind of research goal you have and then decide what pathway works best for you. Here are a few suggestions of things to consider and possible pathways to follow.
a good idea for a research project
If you have an idea that you think is exciting, but its not important to you that you actually carry out the research yourself, perhaps the most promising solution would be offer it up as a Masters project. Most University lecturers will have a quota of masters students – or other kinds of student projects – that they supervise each year, and ideas for projects can be very welcome.
Pros: you can probably be involved in discussing the work with the student which will allow you to have an influence; they might really need your help, e.g. with recruitment; it won’t cost anything; it will build a connection between you and the project supervisor
Cons: the student will only have a few months (usualy most work will happen May-August) and limited resources; not all students produce work of equal quality; it will be written up as a dissertation – and the student should be happy to give you a copy – but it is unlikely to become a peer-reviewed output with more weight behind it.
Good for: simple ideas that you don’t feel to precious about, preliminary explorations of a potential new area / partnership
What to do: email academics in lecturer positions in relevant departments who have a track record of publishing stuff you think is interesting and relevant to your idea. Best to make contact around August / September in the hope of setting up a project to run the following summer. Be specific about what your question is, and ask for a half hour video call to explain the idea and see if they think it would make a good Masters project (and if not, whether they have colleagues who you might talk to instead).
wanting to become a researcher
If you want to become involved in research directly, and you don’t mind so much about the specific project topic, you could offer your support as a research partner or advisor for existing / planned work that already has funding. In this case the key thing is to approach academics who are working in an area that overlaps closely with your interests and specifically offer to help with work they are already doing.
Pros: if you are new to research, you can learn a lot from being part of a project, whatever the specific topic; it won’t cost anything; it will build a connection between you and the project supervisor; the commitment will be fairly low-key for you; academics wanting more community involvement but unsure where to start will be happy to hear form you
Cons: you might be disappointed by how limited your influence is; an inexperienced collaborator might not have all the skills they need to make sure you are an influential member of the team – you will both need to be patient and build trust; you don’t get to pick what you work on; academics might have established advisors already for their projects
Good for: learning the ropes by observing academia at work, preliminary explorations of a potential new area / partnership
What to do: email academics in established positions who have active projects (check their website) you think are interesting and relevant to you. Be clear about what you think you can bring – professional expereince, lived experience, interests – and anything you need – payment, communication preferences. Ask if they are looking for input into projects from someone like you and – if you can – give an indication of what that input might be. e.g. “I would love to just chat with your PhD student about her work on XXX and see if I can offer some useful insights from my personal experience” or “I could help advise on the design of recruitment materials and dissemation to the community”
moving to the next level
If you want to enrol on a degree course of some kind, and really embark on an academic pathway, then good for you! Despite the usual complaints, it is a marvellous career and the working environment does offer a lot of advantages – though we need to do better at making those advantages equally available to everyone.
Pros: getting a new postgraduate degree – a Masters or a PhD – will develop an array of valuable skills, as well as helping you explore the questions you are passionate about. In fact, the process is best thought of as an apprenticeship rather than a chance to make a ground-breaking new discovery.
Cons: Masters degree funding is incredibly rare, PhD funding is slightly less elusive, but still very hard to get. Nearly every student has to pull back on their initial ambitions when designing a student project – whether at Masters or PhD level.
Good for: formailising your research skills; (potentially) making sure your work makes it into a journal – if that matters to you.
What to do: For a masters, explore degree courses and funding. Apply through the formal channels – there’s no need to reach out to specific individuals until you are enrolled. For a PhD, you want to identify a supervisor, and contact them directly, but also find a funding source. The list of suggestions on this page might help.
starting a new collaboration
You might alsready be an established researcher yourself, and reaching out to start a new collaboration. Perhaps someone is using a methodology you would like to learn. Perhaps you feel their discoveries align with yours in some interesting way. In this case, I think the key to success is to make specific suggestions, with an indication of timing and targets. For example, an email like this is extremely hard to respond to:
Dear Dr Fletcher-Watson
I really enjoyed your talk at the symposium last week. I think some of your ideas are really relevant for my work. Could we meet to discuss sometime?
This is much easier for the recipient and more likely to result in a positive reply (or an informed no):
Dear Dr Fletcher-Watson
I really enjoyed your talk at the symposium last week.
I am doing a postdoc examining social interactions in people with schizophrenia and I think the methods you have used could be really relevant. I’d love to talk to you about the details of the methods and analysis, how you design your tasks, and to get your expert opinion on whether the same methods would also be appropriate for my work.
I am going to be designing the second study in my postdoc this autumn so I’d like to try to have this discussion before the end of August. Please could we set up an hour long meeting to discuss these issues – perhaps in the second or third week of August?
If you are interested I can share more detail on when I am available so you can pick a time that works for you. I am attaching the lay abstract for my current grant as a bit of context, in case you need it.
commissioning research input
Organisations in particular might be interested in a new research partnership because they have a service they want evaluated, or they want to so some sort of scoping / market research. The issue here is normally money: researchers need funding to take on new work, and organisations – especially community groups and third sector organisation – tend not to have tons of cash to spare. Three possible solutions might be:
1. offer some sort of resource that would be helpful to the researcher. e.g. ask if they would help design and analyse a client satisfaction survey in return for being able to recruit via your newsletter. You might even feel able to discuss whether the researcher has published new findings which could be implemented in your service – this could lead directly to an Impact Case Study for the researcher, which is going to be very appealing.
2. Offer to seek out knowledge exchange funding. There’s a few funding models now that require academics and commercial partners (which can include charities and community groups) to apply together. This could be a great way forward, but it will take time and close working to get there.
3. Find funding and commission the work. I would be up front about how much money you have – academics are not likely to exploit you financially, not least because it won’t make a difference to their salary. For example, for £1000 perhaps you could buy ten days from a PhD student to design a small survey (3-5 days) and produce an analysis with graphs (3-5 days). This could be paid direct to the student, so it would be research governed by your organisation – the student would never own the data and the work would not be branded with their University logo. But it probably would be good quality and fairly quick to arrange.
Take home messages
I hope this has given readers some ideas on how they can “get into research” at whatever level. I’d say the key things are:
- know what you want to achieve and be specific about that from the start – and also clear on what amount of flexibility there is: e.g. “I don’t mind if we do THIS or THAT so long as the focus is on THE TOPIC YOU CARE ABOUT”
- clarity about the resources available – can you give time? money? expertise? What kind / how much? Maybe you can give nothing, and that’s OK, but do be up front so the person you’re approaching can make an informed decision.
- be explicit about the timeline – when do you want to do this? are there any key deadlines?
- make sure the person you are approaching is really interested in the same stuff as you, and not just in a general sense. e.g. I am interested in autism, but there is a whole load of important autism-related topics that I don’t have the skills or expertise to study.
- do your homework – don’t approach someone asking them to help you find papers that you can also search for on Google Scholar, or funding sources that you can also find yourself. The UKRI website is a good place to start (in the UK!)