I never used a reference manager until I was in the 4th year of my undergraduate studies, and by then it was a bit too late to get rid of my old habits – almost.
Everyone who has ever been in university, regardless of subject, knows that referencing is one of the greatest nightmares that every academic experiences. Don’t get me wrong. Finding and exploring all your references is cool, but incorporating them in your work, is anything but. It’s time-consuming and tedious.
You put in 1 hour of work on an assignment, and you should expect to put an equal amount into citations, trying to sift through all the authors – and what citation style to use? APA? MLA? AMA? Acronyms get me out of here!
But does it always have to be that way? Actually no. With a citation manager, you can import journal articles, save it for later, easily cite your references in any format you wish, and then plug it directly into your references section. It’s that simple. You can even add annotations within your references so you can jot your memory about what the heck you used it for (which I have most trouble with because all the papers are so long).
Reference managers you can use can be integrated with your web browser and even with Microsoft Word, so you can work seamlessly online.
There are a couple of them out there, including Mendeley and Zotero. But please use it! It will save you lots of time and energy.
Here’s a video tutorial below on how to get started with Mendeley (the citation manager that I use). *Please note that I do not endorse any particular reference manager nor am I sponsored by Mendeley in any way – I just happen to use it. 🙂
We live in the computer age – one marked by technological advances and digital revolution. The global transformation brought about by this revolution continue to challenge the old ways of doing things. In education, examples abound where technologies have completely revitalized teaching and learning methods. The creation of online learning spaces has afforded many the opportunity to learn at a pace that works for them. For instance, distance education is now an option offered by most colleges and universities to accommodate individuals that juggle multiple responsibilities such as work, family, business etc. This was all before the corona virus pandemic. With the restrictions currently in place (given the present COVID 19 reality), in terms of social distancing and public gathering limits, more and more colleges and universities – including high schools, middle and elementary schools – have had to transition to a hybrid teaching model, with some of them moving entirely to online delivery.
I am currently enrolled in a world wide web program offered by the University of Northern British Columbia. Although I live in the city where the university is located, I can be situated anywhere in Canada and beyond and still connect with my professors and peers virtually while fulfilling the requirements of my courses, provided I have a stable internet connection. For individuals enrolled in an academic research program like me, although the ability to have an in-person contact with one’s program supervisor is certainly appealing, synchronous virtual interactions via application software like Zoom and Microsoft teams afford one the opportunity to stay connected. As with face-to-face interactions, live videoconferencing can allow for personal interactions and the provision of immediate feedback on any work submitted or issues discussed.
Generally, research students tend to have the desire to gain some research experience with professors affiliated with their university of study prior to embarking on their actual individual project. As such, one might be quick to conclude that this is not feasible with distance learning. To which, I can say with certainty that this is not the case at all – being a distance learner myself. I currently work remotely as a cognitive interviewer with the BC office of patient research. This job involves me conducting interviews with participants located in different parts of BC from the comfort of my home. The qualitative interview skill gleaned from this employment will definitely be useful as I engage in my own independent research project. There are other ways to gain research experience while working remotely; for instance, conducting literature reviews and scoping reviews for professors who are preparing for a large-scale study.
In the age of COVID 19, virtual learning certainly has its appeal as it makes education accessible in a time where the more traditional form of face-to-face learning might not be that feasible. The question of whether online learning will replace the classroom once the pandemic fizzles out is a highly debated topic in academia and beyond. While we cannot overemphasize the perks of virtual learning, we certainly cannot overlook its disadvantage. Humans are social creatures by nature; and, most people thrive in social environments. Learning loses its appeal in the absence of human interaction, that is, the ability to dialogue in person with fellow colleagues in real time. In spite of the argument that could be posited of synchronous learning proffering this same “real time” interaction, traditional classrooms offer students a level of intimacy that cannot be gotten through any virtual means. It behooves one to yet again reiterate the ultimate question: is virtual learning really the future? Only time will tell.
I’m writing this blog post as an UNBC undergraduate student and UNBC Research Ambassador to share three potential paths you can take to get involved in research. I’ve been able to see all three of them in action, personally and through friends.
The process of getting involved in research can seem daunting, especially when you’re an undergraduate student with limited experience. Despite this reality, the potential benefits are high: boosting your resume; making money; increasing your academic knowledge as you apply concepts from class to the real world; refining the soft skills that will help you interact professionally; and improving your future applications to medical school, graduate school, and other post-undergraduate programs. It’s also easy to think of research as an exclusive and difficult club that is meant for “other” people (that’s what I used to think), but in fact all you truly need to start is enthusiasm for knowledge; if you don’t have the exact set of skills necessary, working with the right research mentor will allow you to develop them.
Here are the three paths – Don’t limit yourself to just one idea, either – exploring multiple avenues can open doors to places you’d never expect to find yourself!
Method 1: Applying to positions on the Student Research Opportunities page on the UNBC website
I’ll start off with the most obvious option: simply applying to research opportunities found on the the UNBC website. On the Student Research Opportunities page you can see which professors are looking for students and can then contact them directly with your CV. The e-mail you send is a way to make yourself stand out from the crowd; even if you don’t have direct experience with research we all have applicable skills. In research positions I’ve applied for (successfully), I’ve talked about my ability to work in a team and my love for working with community at my job as a barista, extra classes I’ve taken outside of my direct degree requirements that show interest in the topic at hand, and specifically what piqued my interest from the papers the profs have written.
A secret about this page, though, is that it doesn’t contain all the potential research opportunities available at the University. Sometimes professors will send out an e-mail to their colleagues to forward to students they think would be a good fit for a research study and others don’t necessarily need an extra student but would happily add a student to their team who shows interest. That’s why it’s important to try different methods at getting involved such as the next ones I describe!
Method 2: Approach a potential supervisor with a research award in mind you’d like to apply for
Oftentimes funding is a limiting factor in research. Although many research experiences are volunteer-based, having funding may let you work fewer hours at other jobs so you can focus on doing research and funding could help you create your own research project. If you navigate to the research page on the UNBC website and then click on “Research Funding” on the sidebar, you’ll be able to find different undergraduate research awards including the Undergraduate Research Experience Award, Research Project Awards, and the International Student Research Award, all of which are available to undergraduate students.
After reading the guidelines you can approach a potential supervisor with you CV and ask if they’d support you in applying for the funding and creating a research project. Oftentimes it’s easiest to ask a professor you’ve already taken a class with, but it’s also possible to ask a professor you haven’t met before if they’re in the field that interests you. If you aren’t sure what to say, you can ask me or one of my fellow UNBC Research Ambassadors to help you out with an e-mail template.
From here the professor might already have a research project in mind they haven’t gotten the chance to work on, have a larger research project they’re already working on, or they could even supervise you as you conduct a literature review. That last one might not sound as fun as the others but it’s a great way to discover a research project you can carry out in your graduate studies! Of course, it’s also possible they might not have time to supervise a student, or may want you to come up with your own research idea that’s related to their knowledge base.
Method 3: Expand your network and then see what happens
This is the method I found success with in finding my first research opportunity as a third year undergraduate student. I went to a speaker event that I saw posters for around the school and then talked to the speaker afterwards, telling her I thought the research she was a part of was really interesting. She then asked if I wanted to volunteer on the team, and I said yes! Volunteering has helped me get a summer internship at the University of Alberta, gain presentation skills by presenting at UNBC’s 2019 Research Week, secured me a killer reference for future applications, as well as gained me a mentor that has helped me figure out my future career goals. All of these things likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone to that one speaker event after class!
Another UNBC Research Ambassador, Zach, has written a whole other blog post on networking so please check it out on our website. Some ideas to start expanding your research network include asking your professors, lab instructors, and classroom guest speakers about their research and then potential opportunities if it turns out you’re interested in the topic their researching. Other options include going to speaker events that you’re curious about and joining clubs. Another place I’ve found success is by talking people who are closer to my peer group but a couple years ahead of me in terms of experience.
I’m sure there are many different methods of getting involved in research and I hope by outlining 3 methods and showing some of the benefits I’ve helped you start brainstorming how to start your research journey. Since research is the creation of new knowledge in a format that can be shared with others, it’s so powerful and therefore it’s essential that all type of people are involved in it. Knowing this, I encourage you to put yourself out there even if you don’t think you fit your idea of a “typical” researcher. For some extra guidance, please feel free to e-mail the Research Ambassadors at ResearchAmbassadors@unbc.ca to book a virtual meeting so we can talk the potential research paths you can take.
As a full-time undergraduate student my day is busy, and it always begins with lots of coffee at an hour that’s much too early. Usually I try to go to the school around 9:00 a.m. so I can sit on the second floor of the Winter Garden to get some natural light from the skylight and while I do some homework and drink another coffee. As a Biochemistry student with a minor in First Nations studies, what’s on the schedule has lots of variety: Metabolism, Physiology, First Nations Research Methods, Ecology, or Organic Chemistry with the accompanying labs could all be in the mix.
As a volunteer Research Assistant with the Northern Biobank Initiative (NBI) another layer of variety comes my way every week as well, and has taught me that not all research involves test tubes and lab work. The NBI is an initiative built by Principal Investigator Dr. Nadine Caron that aims to create a population-based biobank in Northern British Columbia, with a First Nations Biobank embedded within. To answer what’s likely your next question, a biobank is a systematized collection of tissue specimens with clinical annotated data that are associated with specimens and securely stored in a database. It is a tool used to facilitate biomedical research and to answer health-related questions.
This would be the first biobank of its kind in Canada and would allow Northern BC to participate in genomic research that is usually tethered to southern, metropolitan academic health care centres and tertiary care hospitals. This is awesome, because we’re unique here up North and having access to research can be a determinant of health by providing more custom-tailored diagnostics and treatment (insert citation). But in order to create a First Nations biobank in a good way, there first has to be consultation on the ethics, governance, consent procedures, and protocols around First Nations biobank. These consultations with First Nations in Northern BC are what I’m involved with, and they came after the First Nations Chiefs passed a resolution at the October 2016 FNHA Northern Regional Caucus to allow for consultations and to support the NBI.
Being involved in this process makes my days as an undergraduate research assistant interesting: on some days in I’d go get a coffee at Degrees after class and then sit somewhere quiet while transcribing the Key Informant interviews that were conducted with Chiefs and Health Directors from around Northern BC. Transcribing is typing out word for word exactly what was said in the interviews – and made me become very familiar with hot-keys and getting creative to make sure I was catching the inflections and spirit with what was being said.
On other days being an undergraduate research assistant involved arranging times to come together with Elders to create tobacco ties that could be given as gifts during the consultation process, and at events like the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) regional caucuses. Doing this was such a nice break from school – sitting together with an Elder for a few hours while focusing on putting good intentions into our work of creating the ties makes me feel so calm.
At times later on in the year being an undergraduate research assistant meant feeling like a celebrity, where I was interviewed and then filmed around UNBC to capture some B-roll for a documentary that the NBI team is involved with (it’s not out yet – ask me about it later!) Less glamourous but still interesting tasks included compiling feedback from our advisory board on the creation of a pamphlet that is used for knowledge translation – which is getting research results back to the community in a way that’s more digestible than those 10 page research papers. I then got to see the pamphlets in action when at a later date I helped run the NBI table at the 2019 Northern FNHA Regional Caucus. At this event I enjoyed the free food and talking to the many interesting leaders and community members present about our work with the consultation process.
Overall for me being an undergraduate research assistant has been a very varied experience, that has come with the accompanying diverse learning experiences. That’s why I couldn’t just pick one day to capture the experience, to truly see the spirit of how it is, it’s important to see the big picture of how everything comes together. The year and a half I’ve been involved with the NBI I’ve gained new skills, and most importantly to me gotten to experience the big picture of why research and universities are so important. The creation of new knowledge is a powerful thing, and being able to be a part of that makes studying for my classes seem worth it.
“How do I decide on a research topic?” is a question that I’m sure many aspiring student researchers such as myself have pondered at one point in their academic journey. For an undergraduate or graduate student looking for opportunities to either work or volunteer in a research project, this may not be a pressing concern. This is because, for the most part, the goal of these students (as was my case), is to gain useful experience that can be transferable into their own research projects. As such, a candid advice to the group of students looking to gain research experience (either paid or volunteer) is to be open to any and every opportunity because the perfect fit might end up being the one you least expect.
Deciding on a research topic is not as easy as it seems. I often find myself advising new students to follow their passion, but the question becomes, what if my passion is not a “priority area”?. Priority area here relates to the fundability of one’s research project. My response to this concern is this – “so what?”. Conducting research is a long journey that requires dedication and commitment to complete. In my experience, you are less likely to get frustrated or bored if you are exploring a topic or an area that genuinely interests and excites you.
Although passion is a necessary ingredient when it comes to choosing a research topic, it is not the only component. Your passion must be guided by logic. Logic in this context relates to how researchable and achievable your chosen topic is. An advice I have received is to not be too ambitious – essentially, do something that play to your strengths. And just as important, be mindful of time and resource constraints. The best part about being a student is you do not have to do this alone – your supervisor, the librarian, even fellow colleagues are at your disposal. Talking things out with others is a super helpful way to refine your thoughts. These conversations can sometimes point out flaws in your thinking which can help orient you towards the right direction.
Another important piece that should be considered when deciding on a research topic is relevance. How relevant is your chosen topic to the field in which it is situated? For example, if you are enrolled in a psychology program, your research must relate in some way and be of importance to the field of psychology. In other words, you must be able to defend or justify why your chosen topic area is worth investigating (i.e., how will the data generated from your proposed topic be practically utilized?). The idea of novelty comes into play here – how original is your research topic? It therefore becomes important to do a quick scan of the existing literature to make sure your chosen topic is not an area that has been over-researched as identifying a gap might prove challenging.
These tips are based on my experience so far as a graduate student. I hope they prove beneficial to your respective situations.
Think Intelligence is what makes a good Researcher? To me that is only part of the equation. Patience and Perseverance are far better indicators of success in research than intelligence. Let me tell you why.
I remember first stepping into the lab as a volunteer during my first year of undergraduate studies. In my mind, it was a generic picture of inspiration and awe. I felt like I would be making a huge difference. But yet all I was doing was refilling pipette tips for 6 months. It was, to put it lightly, the most boring thing I ever imagined I would do in a lab, and yet, it was an essential task, one that allowed the lab to accomplish many amazing things. And it took me many years to realize this…but by performing those menial tasks that no one notices, it was in a sense, preparing me for the reality of doing research. It was a very important reminder that research is a lot about “the grind” and performing the same tests over and over. Remember it took 80 years of the structure of DNA to be discovered after we knew of its existence.
Despite what everyone thinks, research is not always glamorous, and to really answer those big questions, you have to grind through the smaller basic ones first – like determining which size pipette tips to use.
People often don’t talk about these behind the scenes work because it would probably take up a thousand pages in a journal, but it is just as valuable. Nor is it ever depicted on TV shows, where you often see a huge array of Erlenmeyers and fancy glassware all coloured and bubbling with promise. Many people don’t understand what goes behind a discovery, which is basically months if not years of repetitive tasks, some of which end in more mystery than clarity.
You have to have extreme patience and perseverance, and unfortunately not many young people with their short attention spans, have that. They all want to jump in, use an instrument, start building something, without accumulating the body of knowledge that can only come with repetition and experience. They want everything “now” without putting in the effort.
Fast forward 5 years later, I still use pipettes on a daily basis, and I wonder if there will ever be someone who would be willing to refill them. Nope. Still me. So for anyone doing something that seems “pointless” or “boring” such as solving those endless problem sets or writing reports in first year, just know that it is building your mental strength. Just as going to the gym builds your muscles, your brain needs building too. And though it seems hard at first to convince it to do so, you’ll thank yourself later. Trust me.
A common question I have been asked this year has been, how do I go about talking to faculty about getting involved in research? As an undergraduate student, it can seem unclear where to start when it comes to seeking out research opportunities, and especially unclear when thinking about how to broach the topic with faculty. The classic catch-22 applies. You want research experience, but you do not know how to go about talking to faculty about getting involved in research because you have never been involved in research!
I recently got hired as a part-time research assistant, an opportunity I was made aware of by another professor I had worked with. Upon contacting a different professor to ask if they would be willing to provide a reference for me, they let me know that they would have been glad to have me as part of their research team as well. My head instantly swelled three sizes. While I consider myself fortunate to have gathered the research experiences I have had thus far, the one thing I would give myself credit for is diligently networking with UNBC faculty. Since beginning my studies at UNBC, I have made a concerted effort to get to know not just the instructors in each one of my courses, but virtually any UNBC faculty member who has crossed my path. I have gone to such lengths as inviting myself to department meetings, sending out cold e-mail invites for coffee meet-ups, being overly boisterous in class, and accosting instructors as they are waiting in line at Tim Horton’s. When a faculty member is familiar with you as a person, they are likely to be much more responsive to you inquiring about research opportunities. They may even come straight to you if they have an opportunity to offer! While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend some of the shameless networking strategies that I have employed, here are some simple things you could start doing tomorrow to become a better research network-er.
1. Go to your instructors’ office hours. This is a no-brainer, but something I find most students are reluctant to do. One of the privileges of attending a small university is the potential to spend large amounts of one on one time with your instructors. Without having experienced a larger university, it can be hard to know just how good you have it at UNBC. When I was studying at the University of Alberta, I used to have to wait in line outside instructors’ offices for thirty minutes. Once I got in, they would kick me out after five. For this reason, the only times I would slink up to my instructors offices would be to collect my graded exams. At UNBC, there has never been a time where if I so desired, I was not able to talk to a professor during their office hours. If you are serious about getting to know an instructor, and allowing them to get to know you, there is no reason for you not to be attending their office hours several times each semester.
Won’t they get tired of seeing my face if I go too often?
Well, that depends. The most important thing to be mindful of is that you not treat them like an object, especially given the fact they have set aside this special time of day to put themselves at your mercy. A good way to humanize your office hour interactions with instructors is to genuinely ask them how their day is going before getting to the main business of your visit. As you get to know them a bit better, making a bit of small talk at the beginning of your meetings will start to come more naturally. A personal favourite technique of mine is to comment on one of the books on their shelf. Like, do you actually ever read these? Or are they just here for show? Mind you, I am not endorsing brown-nosery. Any lighthearted conversation you attempt to make in an instructor’s office hours should be genuine. This genuineness will create the impression you see them as a person, and not a walking grade receptacle or fire-breathing dragon.
2. Read work produced by UNBC faculty. Goodness help me if you are not already reading the work of faculty whose research you want to get involved with. Not only will this instill within you a tremendous sense of UNBC pride, it is absolutely necessary preparation should you propose to work with a faculty member, or vice-versa. If you don’t have any particular faculty member you feel you might want to work with, endeavour to reference the work of UNBC faculty in the research assignments you complete as part of your regular coursework. This is a good way of familiarizing yourself with work you might want to get involved with. Your instructors will probably love it, too. In fact, I can tell you that doing exactly this resulted (I believe) in securing the research position I previously mentioned. When writing the cover e-mail to the faculty member in question, I was able to say that I had cited their work multiple times in a paper I had written the previous year. Once again in the interview, I was able to reference aspects of their previous work that I was interested in. Obviously, if you ever secure an interview for a research position, you should learn as much as you possibly can about that faculty member’s research. In my case, I think the interviewer was impressed that I had previously taken a voluntary interest in their research.
3. Don’t burn bridges. Every student could tell you of an instructor that they do not see eye to eye with. If at all possible, it is best to avoid entering into some sort of prolonged dispute with an instructor, even if they are definitely not someone you could see yourself working with in the future. This is especially important at UNBC, where a difficult student’s reputation is that much more likely to spread throughout an entire department. Granted, there are circumstances where discussing the outcome of an assignment or giving some constructive criticism about an instructor’s teaching methods is appropriate and necessary. When these situations arise, here are some best practises you ought to follow. Firstly, do not attempt to resolve the issue solely via e-mail. This will come across as passive-aggressive. The best way to resolve an issue is to talk face-to-face. You can initiate the discussion by e-mail, but if you are not willing to follow that up with an office visit or phone call, the instructor in question will have much less reason to take time to address your comment. The silver lining of such action is that, if it is just a minor quibble, the instructor may even appreciate you all the more for actually coming and talking to them. Secondly, do not blame and complain. Try to think in terms of a mutually beneficial solution or piece of constructive criticism. Consider, how will my bringing up this issue make my instructor’s life, and those of their current and future students, easier in the future? If your instructor was to change they way they handled this assignment or exam, would it result in a better teaching and learning experience for all involved? This advice only applies to matters which you consider to be subjectively academic in nature. Other matters, such as those related to academic misconduct or unprofessional behaviour, are beyond the scope of this article.
4. Pay attention to the news. Pay special attention to the news as it relates to the research interests of those faculty members you hope to work with. This may seem like an odd recommendation at first, but I have never met an instructor who did not appreciate a student who kept up with current events. I have had multiple classes where an instructor designated part of the lecture specifically to discuss the news. In others, there are often times where an instructor will bring up a news item, giddy with excitement, only to be let down by an entire class that has no idea what they are talking about. If you can be the one student who is able to chime in when this occurs, you will carve out a special place in your instructor’s heart and mind. I would argue that paying attention to the news as it relates to the course material is almost as important as completing the assigned readings or problem sets (perhaps more-so in the social sciences and humanities). Staying up to date on the news will also aid you immensely as you try to make small talk in your instructors’ office hours ;). Just trust me on this one.
5. Stay ‘engaged’ in class. I cannot stress this enough! It would be unhelpful of me to recommend that you simply ace a particular instructor’s class at will. That said, there are ways of behaving in class that demonstrate your reliability, enthusiasm, independence, and initiative. What faculty member would not want to work with a student who exemplified these qualities? While you may be hard-pressed to knock off an A+ in a particular course, there are other outputs which you have more control over. The obvious ones are showing up on time, completing the assigned readings and problem sets, and attending office hours. For online learning, staying engaged could mean turning your video on if you are comfortable doing so, muting your mic until you need to speak, and not getting up from your keyboard every ten minutes (I have been guilty of all of these things). These are fairly obvious. Some more nuanced examples include preparing insightful questions to ask on the topic of the day’s lecture; being responsive, but not rude or overbearing, to your classmates’ comments; trying to take a leadership role in group assignments; and completing any optional assigned material. In seminar courses with a participation component, doing these things will probably pay off for your grade as well.
If you can start doing all of this, I guarantee you will have a better shot at getting involved in research at UNBC. Of course, one last thing you could do is get in touch with your friendly neighbourhood research ambassadors. Send us an e-mail at : ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’. Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests, and we will do our best to help!
So when people ask me “what do you do?” and I reply with “Quality Assurance Officer”, I often get a confused look. To be honest it’s a bit difficult for me to understand what I do as well, so I had to do a little digging myself to figure out how to best explain it.
I fall into a general category of people that deal with Quality Assurance – basically, I’m supposed to maintain quality in a company/organization’s practices and services. So if you think of any industry, they most likely have a dedicated QA department whether it is the private or public sector. Software development, school, pop drink manufacturers, you name it, all of them have to uphold a certain quality or “standard” in order to offer their services/products. Because if something wasn’t quality, well who would bother?
Quality encompasses several things and depends on the context. When you think of the quality of a scientific paper, you’re usually looking at how many citations the author has, or at the statistics (p value). When you are determining the quality of a computer, you’re usually looking at cost, perhaps the customer service and technical support, the origin of the materials that the computer is made of, and whether or not it has the most updated processors and graphics cards.
For me, I work as a Quality Assurance Officer in an environmental lab, so I specifically deal with making sure the analytical services we offer conform to the international, national, and provincial standards. And while it is important to follow the experts, nothing could be more valuable than communicating directly to clients and my fellow colleagues for feedback on how to improve. So…as you may have guessed, I mainly maintain paperwork, draft procedures, oversee and audit lab activities, and hold regular meetings to discuss our progress.
But lucky for me, that’s not all I do. A great part of being in a small laboratory/business is you that more often than not, your position entails more than the job description and you’ll have the opportunity to juggle many different roles and experiences.
For example, I also perform research, get trained on a variety of cool instruments, write proposals, do consultations on the field, and create business plans. There is no “typical” day for me as a quality assurance officer here, because, in a small team, you have to wear many hats, which is what I love about my job.
So what do you have to do to become a Quality Assurance Officer? Well, first of all, you’ll have to be familiar with the services and products you are working with. That means if you’re maintaining quality for a lab service, you should be familiar with performing that service and following a general procedure. You also need to know what will enable a product/service to “pass” all the quality controls. For example, if you’re making a quality cheese, things you have to consider are the moisture, salt, pH, and maybe the ratio of fat to non-fats. For this, you can refer to a variety of standards that are developed by an international standards-setting organization like the International Standards Organization (ISO).
To be a Quality Assurance Officer, you have to be passionate about improvement. Quality is not set in stone. And that’s why you have to continually learn about what’s the next best thing. Which is basically what Research is all about. See? It’s everywhere.
So whenever you’re sifting through google searching for “the best running shoe” think about being a Quality Assurance Officer. Though it might not be a very traditional career path, it does exist – simply because everyone wants quality.
I started the fourth semester (2nd year) of my master’s degree program about three weeks ago (around the same time y’all resumed as well), and I must say, it’s been a long couple of weeks. Fortunately for me, the Master of Nursing Science program here at UNBC was initially developed to operate as a distance and online form of learning; as such, my enrolled courses for this semester have been relatively unaffected by the campus-wide switch to alternative mode of education delivery. I suppose it won’t be bold of me to claim to be something of a pro at online-learning.
As part of the requirement of being enrolled in a thesis-based master’s program, I am required to embark on an independent research under the supervision of a knowledgeable professor. Since I am in the proposal development stage of my thesis, I have devoted uncountable hours of my time this summer doing a lot of reading, writing and editing. I must say, it’s the not-so fun part of research – in all honesty – but perhaps the most important stage as well. I will stop here so as not to bore you with the gory details of literature search, critiquing and research matrix. Nevertheless, I must needs say that diligent perseverance in the aforementioned stage makes for a smoother journey down the road (at least so I’ve been told).
As if full time graduate study is not enough, I work part-time as a Registered Nurse at one of the complex care facilities here in Prince George – a job I absolutely enjoy, although can be mentally and emotionally tasking at times. I also hold a casual position with the BC office of patient-centred measurement (BCPCM) as a cognitive testing interviewer (a recent but amazing development!). The office of BCPCM (https://www.bcpcm.ca/bc-patient-centred-measurement) deals with measurement of patient experiences and outcomes to enhance public accountability as well as facilitating the province’s progress towards providing care that is patient-centred. Prior to the launching of a full-scale survey study, cognitive testing is done to ensure that the survey successfully captures the scientific intent of the questions in a way that makes sense to the respondents. In this role, I get to cognitively test aspects of the developed survey by interviewing a small number of select respondents that is like the target population.
In a nutshell, this has been my semester so far; I look forward to what the coming months bring 😊
Zach, ‘the social sciences guy’, here. Between this past April and August, I wrote a research proposal, completed an ethics review process, gathered research participants, conducted and transcribed interviews, and then compiled and analyzed data in a final research report as part of a Global and International Studies independent study course here at UNBC. I was fortunate enough to be granted this research opportunity as a senior undergraduate student. In this post, I will give a brief description of each aspect of my summer project. If you are wondering what research can look like in the social sciences, read on!
Tribulations of an inexperienced researcher
Back in January, I took my first crack at conducting original research. As a student in the Global and International Studies capstone course, my task was to design a small-scale research methodology on a sustainability-related topic and implement it to the best of our (largely non-existent) research abilities. Our instructor, Dr. Tristan Pearce, emphasized that we should consider what we were realistically capable of (probably not much considering we all had zero formal research experience) and then pare that down even more, assuming that we would overestimate our own potential. Giving in to my stubborn and self-righteous nature, I chose to ignore his sage advice. I decided I wanted my research to answer the question, ‘How do domestic and Chinese international students form relationships?’. A trivial research question, I thought to myself at the time. How wrong I was. To make matters worse, the methods I devised to answer the question were even more convoluted than the question itself. I chose to take a ‘mixed-methods’ approach to my project, wherein I planned to collect quantitative data from surveys and qualitative data from interviews. Unbeknownst to me, drawing rigorous conclusions from quantitative data requires at least some knowledge of statistical analysis, which I did not possess. Trying to connect my quantitative and qualitative data complicated things even more. To make a long story short, my final research report ended up being more of a final research quagmire.
Fortunately, thanks to the expert and inspirational guidance of Dr. Pearce, I learned a lot and was undeterred despite my ordeal. In fact, I was emboldened. Dr. Pearce generously obliged to guide me once again, suggesting a simpler research question and methodology. So, I drafted a research proposal and literature review for a project aimed at documenting the experiences of international students at UNBC, this time planning to take a purely qualitative approach.
What is qualitative research? Why is it important?
Broadly, qualitative research involving human participants is undertaken to better understand the lived experiences of individuals (Hay 2016). In presenting descriptive accounts of human experience, analyzing qualitative data can tell us things that quantitative data might not.
A common misconception is that qualitative research is less authoritative than quantitative research. Qualitative research is generalized as representing the subjective, while quantitative research represents the objective. Hay notes this generalization is too simplistic, and that quantitative research is also ‘value-laden’ and never ‘interest-free’, claiming researchers are just as likely use assumptions when interpreting quantitative data (2016). Conversely, qualitative methods are less likely to produce ‘generalizable’ findings, where one study might be applied to others (Hay 2016). Ideally, both approaches should be referenced before coming to conclusions about research problems related to human behaviour (Hay 2016).
In the case of my own research, qualitative methods were a good fit because of the ‘exploratory’ nature of the research question. Unsurprisingly, nothing has been documented about the experiences of international students during a global pandemic. Qualitative methods would allow me to ask open-ended questions to illicit descriptive answers, then try to decide which aspects of international students’ experiences were most important. A study like this usually aims to inform future research efforts, rather than draw generalizable conclusions about the research question.
Doing qualitative research often implies working with human participants. This means that a research ethics review process must be completed before the research can be undertaken. In the past, some researchers have employed what would now be considered dangerously experimental and exploitative research techniques (just think along the lines of high voltage, LSD, and unsuspecting young children).
Research ethics policies have since been developed to ensure that proposed research methodologies respect the health and dignity of research participants, and that any potential risks to the participants are adequately balanced by the potential benefits to society and the participants themselves.
Navigating ethics reviews can be a time-consuming and frustrating aspect of the research process, especially for inexperienced researchers. Research ethics boards meticulously scrutinize all applications to ensure that the proposed research aligns with requirements. Any aspect of the application which is not clearly defined or where risk is not adequately considered will result in the document being returned with suggested revisions. Thankfully, Dr. Pearce was able to provide a framework which allowed me to stumble through my first research ethics board review and retain my sanity in the process. Still, our application was returned three times for revision over a month-long period, even though the research to be undertaken was of decidedly ‘minimal risk’ to participants.
Excluding human participants from research methodologies just to avoid research ethics would be unwise in certain cases. On the other hand, an inexperienced researcher should strongly consider project timelines and access to a competent mentor before proposing a project involving human participants.
A strategy for how to access data is a crucial part of the initial planning process. The soundest research methodology is useless without any data. In the case of my research, accessing data was simple. I already had quite a few connections with UNBC international students, some of whom were friends of mine. You may be wondering, ‘Does using your friends and acquaintances as research participants compromise the integrity of the research?’. The answer is, it depends. Qualitative research does not need to be carried out using demographically representative samples. Some studies utilize only a single participant. Further, the participants might be already known to the researcher. The key concern is that the researcher does not exploit an uneven power relationship between themselves and participants. For example, it might be inappropriate for an instructor to use their students in a research project if participating in the research is seen to possibly affect their grade in that instructor’s course. As long as the participant sampling process follows the informed consent guidelines laid out in the approved research ethics application, many different sampling strategies might be appropriate. It often helps to have rapport with participants in qualitative research, so as long as the researcher conducts themselves professionally, including persons known to the researcher can actually be a boon to the research effort.
In the interview process, a qualitative researcher takes on the role of investigative journalist. I conducted semi-structured interviews for my project, meaning I followed an interview guide which I was prepared to deviate from if the situation called for it. In the case of semi-structured interviews, the interviewer needs to be spontaneous should the opportunity arise to delve into an important aspect of a participant’s response. There were many times where I felt like a psychiatrist, constantly asking questions along the lines of ‘…and how did that make you feel?’. After listening to my first few interviews, I was baffled by my tendency to use the word ‘like’ about ten times each minute. I also kicked myself for moving on too quickly from a question without asking a pertinent follow-up. Dr. Pearce and I discussed how a researcher looking to improve their interviewing skills might analyze how talk show hosts interact with their guests, paying close attention to when the host chooses to interject at exactly the right moment. There are many nuances to conducting a good interview, all of which come with experience, as I am sure George Stroumboulopoulos could attest to.
Transcribing interviews is not a glamorous part of the research process. Thankfully, it is 2020 😉 and there are many tools available which can make transcription less time consuming. Using auto-transcription software is not perfect though, so some amount of transcribing needs to be completed ‘by hand’ to retain data integrity. For the most part, transcription is a job delegated to research assistants (AKA the redshirts of a research team, for all you Star Trek fans) involved in large projects. This does not mean transcription cannot be a valuable learning exercise. Transcribing interviews allowed me to closely reflect on my own speech patterns when conducting interviews, as well as those of respondents. When it came time to organize the data, I was already familiar with some of the themes, which would not have been the case if I had not taken part in the transcription process.
Writing the report
The most daunting aspect of my project was trying to make sense of hundreds of pages of interview data, and then condense it into a concise report. I began by categorizing all responses according to my structured interview questions. I then picked out what I thought were the ‘emergent themes’ in the data. That is, the common trends in participants’ answers. Typically, multiple researchers will employ the same data analysis technique to interpret descriptive data to arrive at a consensus about what the data is saying. My project was low budget, so one data analyst would have to do. From there, I selected quotes that best encapsulated each theme to be presented in the ‘results’ section of the report. This was combined with an abstract, background literature review, description of my methodology, and discussion of results.
As an undergraduate student and amateur researcher, completing this research was a very humbling process. My final report was not flawless, but definitely work I will look back on as a building block in my journey as a lifelong learner. The process will be an instrumental learning experience for when I take on other large projects in the future. I would implore any student interested in continuing to study beyond the undergraduate level to seek out opportunities to take on self-directed research, whether it be part of an honors thesis, independent study, or research assistantship. And of course, get in touch with your UNBC research ambassadors to learn more about where to start!
1. Hay, Iain. 2016. Qualitative Research Methods in Human Geography. Oxford University Press