FACULTY CLUB; Finding the `Right' Research Mix

Article excerpt

The research enterprise is the cornerstone of the modern academy. It is so much a feature of the landscape that perhaps it's not surprising that no aspect of the scholarly condition has been subject to more hand-wringing, myth-making and conjecture even as there has been very little in the way of formal study.

Everyone knows the importance of starting one's career by picking the right research question. But from there, things get fuzzy. The question must be neither too narrow nor too broad, but just right.

Actually, "right" is a word one hears frequently in the context of research, as in the venerable old saw: "Don't worry about getting the research right; just make sure you're doing the right research."

And along with vague admonitions such as the foregoing, one finds a proliferation of five- and 10-step formulae that, scrupulously followed, will result in the perfect dissertation/research project/scholarly monograph.

Of course, the simple fact is that, while everyone longs for one, there is no road map from graduate school to a professional career that features a school of the "right" size with the "right" colleagues and the "right" mix of teaching and research. But the experiences of individual scholars can often be quite helpful.

And so Black Issues talks to three scholars about their research. They are at different stages of their careers, based at very different types of institutions -- but united in the fact that each feels that he or she is exactly where they need to be to do the work that they're passionate about.

We asked what they were working on, the similarities -- or differences -- between those projects and their dissertations. We talked about the role of grants, colleagues and community. The result is not exactly a 10-step formula to success, but a timely reminder of some important general principles.

GOING DEEP

"I always tell people you've got to love your project -- you almost have to have an affair with it," says Dr. Beth Richie, associate professor and head of the Department of African American Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. "You have to care about its most minute details. It's almost as if all your pride and comfort were wrapped up in it."

That's quite at odds with the culture of academia, which stresses distance and objectivity, admits Richie. But it is, in her opinion, one of the keys to enjoying a successful research career. And by any objective measure, Richie has certainly done that.

As a specialist in violence against African American women and girls and the link between physical and sexual abuse and incarceration, Richie has been principal investigator or co-principal in no less than 16 major research studies. Her book, Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women (Routledge, 1996), is considered required reading for anyone interested in issues of abuse and incarceration as they pertain to Black women. The full list of her book chapters, articles, monographs, curricula, manuals and more runs to many pages. And all because Richie is motivated by a passion for her subject matter.

"I've been interested and worried, both theoretically and empirically, about the conditions of women and girls caught in the increasingly wide net of the criminal justice system for the 15 years of my research career," she says.

Indeed, as Richie describes the trajectory of her research from the dissertation stage to her current preoccupations, one can clearly see the strength of the foundation laid in graduate school on which she currently stands.

"I first started working with battered women and sexual assault survivors" -- that was the topic of Richie's dissertation -- "and then with battered women and sexual assault survivors who were African American, and then with those who were from low-income communities, and then with those who were trapped in the criminal justice system, and then with those who were young, and then with those who were lesbians. …