I was asked whether I am interested in writing a brief article about my experiences conducting research as a researcher of color. The request gave me pause because I never considered my scholarship from a minoritized perspective. Nonetheless, I quickly realized that this prompt is rather intriguing and gives me an opportunity to share my thoughts to a new audience regarding the benefits of using research to better our communities and persons in our communities.
I believe that good research answers important questions. Great research also answers important questions and asks equally important questions that generate additional and better research. Great researchers are like great detectives, asking small questions and answering them. This leads to asking even bigger questions that solve great mysteries.
My thoughts on my experiences as a researcher are framed by my personal and professional experiences as a graduate student, school psychologist, and faculty member. During my studies as a graduate student, one of my professors frequently reiterated Kurt Lewin’s axiom that “there is nothing more practical than good theory.” Therefore, I conduct my research utilizing multiple theoretical frameworks. As a psychologist, I engage in social science research. I find that the work social scientists engage in can make a marked improvement in communities and potentially save lives.
Several years ago, as a school psychologist working in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I recognized that many of the children with whom I worked were being raised by their grandparents. A phenomenon I called grandfamilies (Edwards, 1996). Some of the children were experiencing tremendous difficulties. The children’s challenges frequently seemed to be understood and explained best from an attachment theory perspective.
That was an “aha moment.” I found my passion and since that time I have conducted numerous studies regarding the psychosocial functioning of children in grandfamilies from the perspective of attachment and social support theories.
Social Science Research to Improve Lives
When I began my research work with grandfamilies, few studies were being conducted in this arena. Most of the studies reflected pejoratively on the grandparents and grandchildren. My research indicates grandparents are often doing the best they can to improve their grandchildren’s life. They appreciate the second chance opportunity at leaving a positive legacy. Furthermore, although many of the children experience psychosocial challenges, many of them function very well in school and in society. For example, people such as President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey were raised for some length of time by their grandparents. My scholarship suggests the grandparents merely need certain specific strategies to better develop the grandchildren’s potential. The children function best when provided specific social support strategies to buffer stress, stress symptomology, and the conditions that predate their entrance into grandfamilies.
My early experiences taught me that the best social science researchers engage in research about topics which they are passionate. Outstanding social researchers engage in research that can improve society. I also learned that students and faculty of various diverse demographics can become outstanding researchers if they are motivated, dedicated, and passionate about their work.
Now, I will add a caveat that I am not suggesting that academic researchers engage in advocacy research. I find that advocacy researchers are at risk of conducting research from a highly subjective and perhaps even biased orientation. Too often, research conducted from a predetermined perspective, leads to faulty findings, deceptive decisions, and myriad misapplications.
Nonetheless, if you are passionate about your research, you will frequently find that the work benefits people with whom you have a strong connection. I found that my research benefits persons across the spectrum of ethnicity, gender, religion, and many other demographic characteristics. This is the case because grandfamilies are found across all societal spectra. Yet, my scholarship favorably impacts people who look like me, because grandfamilies are disproportionately persons of color.
Recommendations for Emerging Researchers
I have just a few suggestions for young scholars engaging in academic research. First, passion for the work is critical. When work brings joy, it becomes an avocation rather than a vocation of labor. Find research agendas that you enjoy thinking about. And, in the middle of the night, lying in bed, brilliant ideas often emerge.
Next, mentorship is helpful but even more helpful is apprenticeship. Apprenticeship allows you to work with someone who will teach you the nuances of the discipline and allow you the opportunity to engage in the direct application of the work with constructive guidance. Academic apprenticeship involves a co-constructive process determined by both expert and apprentice. Apprenticeships can be intrinsically rewarding for both parties. Experts who share their time, knowledge, and insight are often professionally and personally sustained by the sense of “giving back” and developing a scholarly lineage. Novices, who learn and apply learning when working with an expert, build a skillset that allows them to thrive when they begin to operate independently.
Finally, strive to conduct research that is meaningful. The “so-what?” question in research is always crucial. That is, unless the work is important, the return on investment in time and effort will result in inconsequential outcomes. All too often, novice researchers underestimate their capacity and potential to positively impact society. We can stretch beyond our perceived limited capacity when we are unafraid to risk the initial failure. The micro-failures (small setbacks) that result in learning can lead to macro-achievements (great successes). Meaningful research makes lives better.
Challenges Are Opportunities
In closing, I view academic research occurring within the context of a very fluid environment that confronts ongoing economic challenges for extramural fundings, political attacks, and the impending impetus to constrain research lines of investigation. The aforementioned notwithstanding, I believe academic research leads to outcomes that can change our societies for the better. I view this zeitgeist as a catalyst for increasing meaningful research conducted by emerging scholars from across the entire diversity spectrum.
Edwards, O. W. (1996). The grandfamily school support network. NASP Communiqué, 2(5), 2.
Oliver Edwards is Chair of UCF’s Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology chair and a professor.