Job (Re)Search: Part Three – Be Your Own Ethics Board

Is there anything more exciting than research design?

There may well be, but you’re unlikely to read about it in this blog entry. That’s because I’m writing a series of blog posts comparing the process of academic research to various career-related tasks. In part one I wrote about operational definitions and shared my own views on exactly what things like resumes and strengths are. Part two was all about questions—well, one question really: the research question, which motivates and propels a study towards completion, just as it clarifies the process of career exploration.

Today’s installment is all about planning and ethics.

In research, a lot of planning has to take place before any actual research can be done. One thing that research does NOT have in common with a job search is that you don’t have to get clearance from an ethics review board before you go out to look for work (and for that we should all be very, very thankful). Researchers must figure out exactly what they’re planning to do, and how they’re planning to do it, and then submit a detailed proposal outlining this information to a board of reviewers who will determine if the study is ethically sound.

As a result, there’s a lot of work being done that doesn’t necessarily equate to making progress. This is especially true if your research involves human participants, and doubly so if participants will be legal minors or members of any population considered to be “vulnerable” at the time of the study. Researchers have to convince the members of the ethics review board that they won’t be doing any potential harm to their participants, or that any risk of potential harm is outweighed by the study’s potential benefits.

As I mentioned above, there is no board when it comes to exploring careers, and for that we should be grateful. However, the way that most people go about career exploration, it’s as if they’ve been conditioned to believe there’s a panel of faceless overseers watching their every move, waiting for an excuse to pull the plug, so they better plan things out carefully so as not to screw anything up!

In order to pass the scrutiny of an ethics review board unscathed, a researcher has to identify all the things that could go wrong in the execution of their research design, and develop plans to either prevent or deal with those contingencies as they come up. It’s actually a good thing for a researcher to be a little bit paranoid in the planning stages, a little bit obsessive about and afraid of the mistakes they could potentially make, so that they can adequately address those concerns in their proposal, allaying any concerns an ethics review board might have.

I think we’re naturally conditioned to behave the same way when it comes to career exploration—the only difference being that this over-emphasis on planning is ultimately hurtful instead of helpful. Fear of making mistakes is a logical consequence of imagining all the things that can go wrong. It’s this fear that prevents people from taking meaningful action. What’s more, putting a lot of time and effort into a plan is only constructive under two conditions, both of which are more likely to be true in research than in career exploration:

  1. Your plan doesn’t change. Another way to think of this would be to say that things proceed pretty much as you predicted they would.
  2. You eventually stop planning and start taking action.

For a researcher, plans (research designs) rarely change significantly once they are approved. To do so would mean circling back to the planning and approval stage. And it’s easy to see the link between planning and action in research, because researchers can begin the act of collecting data once their plan is approved. This is not the case in career exploration, and it shouldn’t be—plans change frequently, as it’s only in very rare cases that things work out just like you predicted. It’s also quite easy to get lost in career planning without ever really doing anything about it, because there’s no clear-cut directive sequence as there is in research.

No one’s going to give you the green light. You have to be your own ethics board. Unless you want your thesis (your chosen career path) to hang over your head your whole life, you have to kickstart the action process sooner rather than later.

What do you want to do with your life? The only way to find out is to start taking action and collecting relevant data. And that, of course, is a topic for next week.

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