The role and purpose of a research agenda

A research agenda plays a valuable role in helping design scholarly activities for graduate students and faculty. Simply put, a research agenda means identifying the areas you will research and the methodologies you will use to answer questions. You probably have heard from professors in graduate school and beyond that you can’t research everything so you need to pick what you can feasibly study. Moreover, a scattershot approach can keep you from focusing on important questions and pull you in a number of different directions. In today’s post, I will describe research agenda and why they can be of benefit for researchers.

Photo credit: Paul Albertella

Just as a meeting agenda provides the items to be discussed during a meeting, a research agenda provides clarity and a framework for making decisions regarding your research activities.

It can be tempting to jump on any research idea that comes along and seems interesting.

Rather, what you need is a lens through which you can consider new ideas and projects as they come along.

A clearly articulated research agenda provides boundaries for you to make decisions regarding your scholarly work.

New projects will undoubtedly be attractive at first, but they should be considered in light of your agenda as the first step in reviewing them.

Only once the new idea is in line with your agenda to you move on to consider if you have the time and desire to move forward.

In addition to serving as a useful guide, research agenda help others understand and view the research work that you do.

Research agendas are comprised of a strand (or possibly two or three related ones) of research that you explore. These may be topics or questions that your research seeks to explore.

Many people that I have know do not have a single line of inquiry that forms their research agenda.

Everyone has different and even related interests for their scholarship so you may not have a single, isolated line of research that you explore.

Even tenure committees (that value firm agendas) realize that tenure candidates may have two related concepts that they studied extensively in graduate school, had experience in working on in a laboratory, or were part of their dissertation.

As long as you can articulate each line of inquiry, the relationships between each line, and demonstrate your expertise in the two (or at most three) lines of inquiry that you are studying, most everyone in higher education will find this appropriate.

However, if your research appears to be a collection of random projects lacking a common thread between them, hiring and tenure committees will rightly question whether you have demonstrated expertise and developed a level of sophistication in your research.

For pre-tenure faculty, research agendas can be useful for helping you build up a reputation of expertise and work around a specific topic.

College and universities want to see that pre-tenure are establishing or have achieved a national reputation in the field of expertise.

A tightly focused research agenda helps to achieve prominence by focusing on a specific area.

If someone’s research bounces around among a variety of relatively disconnected projects, then it becomes difficult to establish and validate areas of expertise particularly to external reviewers.

Moreover, working on similar research studies creates significant efficiencies. For example, you do not need to learn a new body of research in order to write the literature review and you are already familiar with journals that publish on your topic.

Overall, if you maintain a sense of consistency with your topic, you can more easily and quickly publish your research.

If you are struggling with articulating your own research agendas, I recommend studying the careers of major researchers in your discipline.

To do this, get a copy of the vita of a significant and well-respected researcher.

Next, look at the years prior to when the established scholar received tenure.

You are looking for how their line of research progressed throughout their career. Research takes a while to build up knowledge and data to answer specific questions.

Over time, as methodologies advance and the knowledge base grows, you will probably see research questions morph and change.

When looking at a full professor with 25 years of research experience, many pre-tenure faculty fail to fully appreciate how research agendas evolve. These professors did not magically come out of graduate school with the focus and expertise they possess today.

Studying these other agendas can help you learn how research agendas evolve over time, which can help in creating your own research agendas.

Establishing a research agenda and sharing this with professors, mentors, and colleagues provides an important groundwork and foundation for your research activities and I highly suggest taking the time to think about and articulate your own agenda.