Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Research Skills

I am still on the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. Today I want to discuss another tool that graduate students need for success: research skills. The art of conducting research has many components. First, students need to formulate research questions, preferably research questions that are going to be incremental, if not significant, additions to the field. This is a hard skill to teach, and one students really want to learn how to do. In fact, I was just on a panel at a first-year graduate student orientation, and a student asked – how do I come up with good research questions?  There is no easy answer to this question. But, I have a few ideas of how we can help grad students gain skills related to formulating research questions.

medium_320161805First, we need to teach graduate students how to find and consume research. Faculty often assume that because our students are so tech-savy, they know how to search the internet for research related to their topic of interest, and find relevant articles. However, what faculty forget is that as undergraduate students, our students most often use their computers for social networking and consuming information. It is a very different skill to use the internet to find research. In a future post, I want to talk about skills related to finding research, but that is outside of the scope of this post. Let me just say that we need to teach students how to use the internet (my favorite is google scholar) to find research articles, rather than assuming they know how to do this.

On the topic of how to consume research, I think most students come into graduate school thinking they need to read every word of every article, and that they need to read every single article on their topic. Students will eventually realize that this is impossible. We might save them time by recommending ways to figure out which articles they should read in their entirety (i.e. classic articles in their field, articles that they are directly building on with their research) and which articles they can skim (i.e. articles for class that our outside of their field, articles that they are using just for a particular citation). We also need to help them understand when they have enough of a grasp of their area to begin to move towards research questions. I try to cover how to consume research early in the grad student proseminar I lead (see a syllabus here), but grad students can go years without really understanding how to consume research in an effective, efficient way. It feels overwhelming to get to know a field when you are a beginning grad student, so the earlier grad programs and advisors can give tips for consuming research, the better. Advisors are also the best individuals for helping a student know when they are ready to go to the hypothesis building phase, and have read enough. I have seen students fall in this trap where they think they don’t know the literature well-enough to formulate and test research questions, even after years in graduate school, and these students tend to flounder and not get the publications needed to land jobs.

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Tools to Promote Grad Student Success: Writing Skills

Well, apparently I took the summer off from blogging. I wasn’t necessarily planning that, but I was really busy with grant submissions, travel, paper revisions, etcetera. I had a great time at the International Association for Relationship Research conference in Australia in July, and I also visited and gave talks at the University of New South Wales’ Social Policy Research Centre and the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. I was also appointed to the National Council on Family Relations’ Future of Family Science Task Force and attended a 3-day meeting in Minneapolis where the task force met. More on that in a future post.  I should also mention I had fun too – lots of baseball and t-ball for my sons, a Nashville bachelorette party for my sister, and trips to Cedar Point and Kelly’s Island with my family. Overall, great summer!

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

photo credit: Pesky Library via photopin cc

For now, I want to get back to the topic of self-regulated learning and graduate education. My last post posed the question “What information could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?” Now I want to move on to “What tools could we provide to promote our graduate students’ learning, intellectual development, and achievement of their post-graduate school goals?”

When I think of the tools of the trade for myself, the most important tools that come to mind are: writing skills, research skills, and presentation skills. Let’s discuss each of these in turn.

The most critical skill we could provide to our graduate students, in my opinion, is exceptional writing ability. Excellent writing skills can improve a students’ likelihood of grant funding, manuscript acceptance, and can ease the milestones of graduate school, such as comprehensive/qualifying/candidacy exams. Each of these can help students achieve their post-graduate school goals. Further, excellent writing skills can lead to further intellectual development as they can help distill ideas and lead to new discoveries. Learning is also improved with good writing – students will be more likely to retain information when they are able to succinctly and logically summarize critical ideas.

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