The data Rorschach test, or what does your research say about you?

Sure, there is a certain abundance of personality tests: inkblot tests, standardized cognitive tests, magazine quizzes, etc. that we could participate in. But researchers participate in Rorschach tests of our own every day. There are a series of questions we ask as part of the research process, like:

What data do we want to collect or use? (What information is valuable to us? What do we call data?)

What format are we most comfortable with it in? (How clean does it have to be? How much error are we comfortable with? Does it have to resemble a spreadsheet? How will we reflect sources and transformations? What can we equate?)

What kind of analyses do we want to conduct? (This is usually a great time for our preexisting assumptions about our data to rear their heads. How often do we start by wondering if we can confirm our biases with data?!)

What results do we choose to report? To whom? How will we frame them?

If nothing else, our choices regarding our data reflect many of our values as well as our professional and academic experiences. If you’ve ever sat in on a research meeting, you know that “you want to do WHAT with which data?!” feeling that comes when someone suggests something that you had never considered.

Our choices also speak to the research methods that we are most comfortable with. Last night I attended a meetup event about Natural Language Processing, and it quickly became clear that the mathematician felt most comfortable when the data was transformed into numbers, the linguist felt most comfortable when the data was transformed into words and lexical units, and the programmer was most comfortable focusing on the program used to analyze the data. These three researchers confronted similar tasks, but their three different methods that will yield very different results.

As humans, we have a tendency to make assumptions about the people around us, either by assuming that they are very different or very much the same. Those of you who have seen or experienced a marriage or serious long-term partnership up close are probably familiar with the surprised feeling we get when we realize that one partner thinks differently about something that we had always assumed they would not differ on. I remember, for example, that small feeling that my world was upside down just a little bit when I opened a drawer in the kitchen and saw spoons and forks together in the utensil organizer. It had simply never occurred to me that anyone would mix the two, especially not my own husband!

My main point here is not about my husband’s organizational philosophy. It’s about the different perspectives inherently tied up in the research process. It can be hard to step outside our own perspective enough to see what pieces of ourselves we’ve imposed on our research. But that awareness is an important element in the quality control process. Once we can see what we’ve done, we can think much more carefully about the strengths and weaknesses of our process. If you believe there is only one way, it may be time to take a step back and gain a wider perspective.

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Renewing my Vows?

Anne Steen came to our Proseminar class last week to discuss personality types, the strong skills inventory, and the search for an ideal job. She used an excellent analogy to describe the difference between doing work that we are and are not suited for. She said that doing work that we are well suited for is like using our dominant hand to write. We do it without really thinking about it. Writing with our other hand is possible, but it is more difficult. I have always felt that way about my work. I remember when I first began to work in research. I had done other kinds of work before, some of which I had enjoyed more than others. But work in research was almost meditative, because it came so naturally to me.

Because of that feeling, it has always been hard for me to see outside my field. I don’t feel as though I have a great understanding of what other people do in their work on a day to day basis, and I can’t easily envision myself doing any different kind of work. The results of the strong skills inventory and MBTI reinforced my contentedness with my current position. Many of my daily work activities were listed as work activities that I would particularly enjoy. I feel like, professionally speaking, I married my first love and am too content in my marriage to imagine being with anyone else. In fact, I work at an organization where people tend to stay for their entire careers, so the metaphor is particularly apt. In a culture where people don’t consider looking elsewhere or changing jobs, it feels particularly backhanded to explore other options. In this way, I feel like I have seen my matches on a dating website, and my partner was right on top of the list of potential matches.

Because of this, I feel like I need to go deeper in order to ‘think outside the box.’

One aspect of my current job as a survey methodologist that I really love is designing surveys. For paper surveys, I really love obsessing about the color of the survey and the mood it will immediately evoke. I love playing with space. I love the way that each aspect of the space is meaningful and every design element must be consistent, because it will be taken as meaningful. I love the way rearranging the questions changes the context and meaning of the questions themselves. I love reading the research about what people like to encounter first, and what you need to squirrel away last, and what questions increase respondent’s confidence in the survey. I love the crisp, professional look of a well-designed survey, and I love the way each aspect of the design is based on research.

I also love designing web surveys. Many of my other job activities are based on programming, so working with CSS really resonates with me. I started out working with html and then discovered CSS, so the flexibility of CSS was a real revelation. It turned out that I could set text styles, just like on a gui editor, design all aspects of their appearance, and tweak them with ease. Tweaking margin spaces until I feel content looking at them appeals to my artistic sensibilities. I really love survey design for its technical challenges and artistic rewards. When I am in a design phase, I even tend to read design books, like Norman Cook’s The Design of Everyday Things or Steve Krug’s web design classic Don’t Make Me Think, in my spare time.

Although I really love most aspects of my job, survey design is the one aspect that I have volunteered to specialize in. My small department’s workflow style has been best described as “jack of all trades, master of none,” but I have approached my directors and told them that we could use an expert in survey design, because it’s such an important part of collecting quality answers. Since then our tech guru has created a survey template, so I no longer get to do much survey design. I am interested in finding new ways to apply those skills, or ways to bring those skills back into my work life.

However, I worry about this kind of a step, because I’m so interested in research methodology.

I suppose that having too many interests is not a bad problem to have!