Back in the Before Times of holiday parties, weddings, and baby showers, interactions with my extended family often devolved into uncomfortable exchanges like these:
Well-Meaning Family Member: So, when do you finish your PhD?
Me: I’m not sure, but I hope to finish up in the next year or two.
WMFM: Wow, that sure is a long program!
WMFM: So, what are you working on these days? Taking classes?
Me: Nope, I’m all done with classes, so I’m just writing my dissertation.
WMFM: Weren’t you working on that last Christmas, too?
(Okay, I made that last line up.) In these back-and-forths I detect two unspoken questions: 1) What’s taking so long? and 2) What the heck do you do all day, anyway? Perhaps you, too, have similar questions. I can’t blame you – academia can be a pretty opaque world, even to those of us inside it.
One of my (several) goals for this newsletter is to demystify the world of academia for those of you who may be familiar with its outputs (e.g., specific findings that get cited on Twitter/in the newspaper/on your favorite morning talk show) but less certain about how the sausage gets made. Don’t worry, this won’t turn into Research Methods 101. Instead, I’ll just share some stories from my own work.
Today: How is a research project born?
I put myself in the camp of people who consider academic research part art and part science. Conducting a research project is a creative act, albeit one in which the products are new knowledge and ideas rather than new art. To come up with a good project idea, your antenna must be up: inspiration might come in the form of a newspaper article, an interesting talk, a footnote in a paper you read for class, a weird interaction you had, etc. (I have never written a novel, but my understanding is that novelists are also notorious magpies, storing up all sorts of observations and interactions that later wend their way into a story.)
This pre-research phase is exciting but also incredibly frustrating, because you can’t will yourself into a stroke of inspiration. You can increase your chances of stumbling on an idea by exposing yourself to a wide range of “inputs” and regularly reflecting on them, but there’s a little bit of magic here, too. Along the way there will likely be false starts, vague notions that never quite crystallize into full-fledged ideas, and fears that perhaps you aren’t the scholarly sort, after all.
But eventually, if you’re lucky, something clicks. With the clarity of hindsight, I trace my own “click” moment back to my first year of graduate school, when I took a class on social stratification (basically, this is the study of how individual characteristics like race, gender, and class shape our life chances). For the class session on gender, we read an excerpt of Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift. Hochschild coined the term “second shift” to describe a depressing phenomenon. Even as women entered the paid workforce in greater numbers in the latter half of the 20th century, they continued to do more of the unpaid work at home. In effect, they worked two shifts: one on the factory floor, and a second on the kitchen floor. Though Second Shift was published in 1989, many of the basic findings remained true in 2017 when I first encountered it.
The professor, Sasha Killewald (who would eventually become my dissertation co-advisor), paired this book with readings on the “motherhood penalty.” This penalty refers to the gap between the earnings of comparable mothers and non-mothers. The specifics are complex, but the basic idea is this: if you take a childless, college-educated woman and compare her income to that of a college-educated woman with young children, the mom will likely earn less.
As I read, an idea started to take shape. To understand that idea, though, I need to take you back a few years earlier, to my pre-grad school work with a nonprofit consulting firm called ideas42. Shortly before I joined, the firm received unrestricted funds from a wealthy donor who wanted us to solve childhood poverty using principles from behavioral science. (Spoiler alert: we did not solve it, but I’m proud of the work we did and that the ideas42 team continues to do in this area!)
Our jumping-off point was a book called Scarcity, written by a psychologist and economist who also happened to found ideas42. Scarcity’s main argument is that a lack of key resources—whether time, money, sleep, or calories—has predictable psychological consequences. Our brains home in on what we lack and in the process lose sight of less urgent concerns.
If you’ve lived through a final exam period, you probably understand this intuitively. While your brain was consumed with memorizing flash cards, cramming material you meant to read weeks ago, and frantically typing out 10-page papers, less pressing to-dos likely fell by the wayside: calling your mother on her birthday, consuming a modicum of vegetable content daily, applying for your post-graduation job, etc. Why? You—like all of us—have limited mental bandwidth. Your finals exerted a “bandwidth tax” that ate up the majority of your mental capacity.
Back to that Harvard classroom. I put what I learned from Scarcity into conversation with key tenets of family/gender sociology, and a question emerged: What if it wasn’t just pumping and breastfeeding that separated moms and dads, but the relative brain space taken up by caring for their children? What if some of the struggles women faced (greater anxiety, lower wages, etc.) stemmed from the cognitive load they carried at home? If my hunch was right, then just measuring the number of hours men and women spend on housework and childcare would only scratch the surface of the differences in their familial roles.
Finally, I had a question—or at least the start of one—that could potentially be answered using empirical data. Before I could start collecting that data, however, my next step was to check that this question hadn’t already been answered. In academia, novelty is prized: the burden is on you to convince your advisors, and eventually your reviewers and readers, that you’re making an important “contribution.” Read: you’re saying something that hasn’t been said before, at least not in exactly this way, and you’re saying something that other people will care to know.
For a couple months, I read furiously in the literature on gender, family, and work. I found that people had been referencing various “hidden” and “invisible” forms of housework and childcare for decades. This was good news, in the sense that I could join an ongoing conversation. Scholars who propose something too new often have a hard time convincing people that it’s worth suddenly thinking about the topic. Better to approach an ongoing conversation from a new angle.
Further good news was that (at least as I read the literature) our understanding of exactly what comprised this invisible work was somewhat vague: we (sociologists) knew it was there, but we hadn’t figured out quite yet how to precisely define or rigorously measure it. I thought I could move the conversation forward…I just had to figure out how. More on that in a future Dispatch.
For your consideration: Despite watching very little Netflix, I am acutely familiar with the Netflix Problem. Faced with infinite possibilities—for recipes to cook, restaurants to visit, travel to take—I often default to doing the same three things I usually do. Enter the seasonal bucket list (or perhaps just a bucket list, for those of you in California?). Basically, you come up with a set of options for yourself in advance: trails to hike, ice cream shops to try, beaches to visit. Do some cursory research up front, and save it in whatever format you’re most likely to remember two weeks from now. Then the next time you think “What should I do?” and find yourself poised on the precipice of what-I-always-do, just pick an option from your list. (This is the same principle as keeping a “To Be Read” or “To Watch” list in Goodreads or Netflix, but for experiences. And if you are not a list person, well, we likely cannot comprehend each other.)
‘Til next week,
As always, feel free to reply to this email or comment if you have questions, ideas for future newsletters, or just want to say hi. And if you like TDD, share with a friend!