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Developing a Research Agenda

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Young people pursuing graduate study often ask me how I developed my research agenda. They wonder how one carves out an area of research. For those of you who read this blog often, you know that the majority of my work focuses on historically Black colleges and universities and students of color. Recently, I was asked to talk about developing a research agenda at the annual Association for the Study of Higher Education conference and I thought I’d share my comments with Diverse readers. 

  • I think anyone interested in pursuing a line of research has to feel passionate about that research. Research is hard and takes a lot of time. You have to be committed to it. 
  • Informed research is the result of reading widely —  within and outside of your discipline. Reading widely will make you a more colorful writer. I suggest that scholars read well-regarded fiction to get ideas for good writing.
  • To make your research more relevant to others, you need to make connections with larger issues and ideas. You don’t want your research to appear insular and too narrow. 
  • Once you have determined what you feel passionate about, write every day. Research shows that those who write every day write better than binge writers. Writing every day keeps ideas fresh in your mind and serves as a motivation.
  • When pursuing a research agenda, carve out a couple areas to pursue that are inter-related. Read deeply in these areas and get to know the literature. You can then ask many questions that draw from the same literature. This strategy is helpful during the early years of a faculty career.
  • When collecting data for your research, think more broadly than one paper — consider ways that you can build upon the work and expand it in the future.
  • Don’t spread yourself too thin. Stick to a few areas and become well known for your work in those areas.
  • To gain a better understanding of your research topic, reach out to more senior scholars in the area and talk to them about your ideas. Ask them to collaborate with you. It’s a lot easier to learn the various approaches to research if you have a mentor or collaborator working with you.
  • Look for research ideas everywhere — when you watch the news, attend a meeting, interact with strangers, read a magazine or interact with family and friends.  Interesting questions surround us as do the potential answers to those questions. 

These are just a few ideas that I pass on to my doctoral students and that I use to guide my own research. I hope they are helpful and encourage you to pursue research that interests you. If you have questions and you don’t see others answering these questions, consider pursuing research and answering them yourself. 

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).

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