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What to do When Things go Wrong (with your research)

Tomorrow's Research

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What if all your questionnaires are sent out with the wrong return address labels? What if your data logging equipment is stolen and you lose all your data? What if the organization in which you are working refuses to allow you continued access?


The posting below gives some excellent advice on what to do when you research goes wrong, and how to prevent some of the disasters in the first place. It is from a nifty little book, 500 Tips for Research Students, by Sally Brown, Liz McDowell and Phil Race. Published by Kogan Page Limited 120 Pentonville Road London N1 9JN ? Sally Brown, Liz McDowell and Phil Race, reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Navigating in Uncertainty

Tomorrow's Research


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Chapter 10

What if all your questionnaires are sent out with the wrong return address labels? What if your data logging equipment is stolen and you lose all your data? What if the organization in which you are working refuses to allow you continued access?

1. Don't panic! Most situations are retrievable and this kind of thing has happened to other researchers before you. However, most people don't talk about them and they certainly don't get written into final reports! Some of your network contacts might have had similar experiences and be able to help.

2. Take a break. Try to regain your perspective. There are other things in your life than this research-if not, rectify the balance now!

3. Have a fall back position. Try to plan for some alternative approaches so that if something does go wrong you have a chance to retrieve things. When panning and doing fieldwork, build in some deliberate redundancy, so that you're not dependent on every single part of your work.

4. Take stock. Even if you have lost some data, or been prevented from collecting some of the information you had hoped for, it may be that in fact you can still achieve a satisfactory outcome. As a perfectionist, you probably thought you needed all that data but maybe the research can actually stand up without it. Data does get lost, especially if information technology (IT) based, even if you have three generations of computer files in different locations. It will happen to you too!

5. Two steps forward, one step backwards. This tends to be the nature of research. Don't assume that a particular step backwards equates to final disaster -it may just be part of the natural 'growing pains' accompanying successful research.

6. Don't pretend that you haven't got any problems. Talk to your supervisor, and to other research students you know. People are usually most understanding when they can see genuine difficulties or problems, and will offer useful advice.

7. Get an extension. You will probably have a deadline for the completion of your research. However, most academic departments will give extensions to this deadline for real disasters and genuine problems. Contact your supervisors as soon as possible.

8. Do it better this time. If you have to re-do something, take the opportunity to improve on the way you did it the first time. You may end up with a better, and more concise, piece of research following your disaster.

9. Capture what you learned from adversity. The fact that things did not work out initially may provide you with rich discussion material for your thesis, about adjustments to initial approaches, learning from experience, and strategic planning of research. Worry about people whose theses tell the story of model pieces of problem-free research!

10. Remember that what didn't work is often just as interesting as what did. There is room in any thesis for a critical account of unsuccessful approaches to solving a problem, alongside the tactics that finally paid off.


There are some common problems that researchers encounter. Don't imagine that it can't happen to you. The disasters we've mentioned below all refer to research processes one way or another, but don't forget that there are other kinds of disaster which can be even more serious, such as illness, divorce, all sorts of things to do with children, broken computers, financial disasters... but dealing with all of these would take another book, so we'll have to stick to research disasters!

1. Lack of proper piloting and trailing. The purpose of piloting is to avoid disasters in collecting and analyzing the data for your research; make sure you do enough.

2. Inadequate planning. Even though it is difficult to plan everything about your research at the beginning, you need to plan as carefully as you can, and continually monitor and modify your plans.

3. Failing to do a comprehensive literature search. A common disaster is to find a vital piece of precious research with really significant implications for your project when it is too late to take it into account, This can cause serious problems, so do your literature research thoroughly.

4. Failing to keep track of emerging literature. Another cause of disaster is when someone else is working on the same problem or issue as you are-and publishes first! The sooner you're alerted to this, the sooner you can change your own plans and approaches to ensure that you do something original and new.

5. Beware of 'I've started, so I'll finish!' When circumstances change, it's usually best to make new research plans, or substantially adapt your existing ones, than to stick rigidly to your first intentions. For example, if important new work in your area is published, plan your own work to take it into account or build on it, rather than pretend it never happened!

6. Failing to negotiate access. Many research projects have faced disaster when someone 'in authority' puts a block on the work. If you are undertaking research in any kind of organization such as a school, a business, or voluntary organization, make sure that you have a written agreement, ratified by a senior person, about what you will be allowed to do, what facilities will be offered to you and so on.

7. Running out of time. It is very common for there to be no time at the end of a project for writing it up. Perhaps the most important thing is to know when to stop collecting data so that you can allow yourself the time you need to write up. Don't forget that you're ultimately judged on the basis of what you write up -not on everything you did or thought of doing.

8. Beware of thinking 'I'll get a job, and do the writing up as soon as I can.' Moving to a new job and a new place takes more time and energy than you may think, and the deadline for submitting your work may approach surprisingly quickly.

9. What if I fail? It would seem like a disaster if you submitted your thesis and it did not pass but in fact there are almost always opportunities to do some rewriting and re-submit This is one disaster you can avoid to your supervisors in good time and paying attention to their comments. by getting drafts.

10. Remind yourself that 'failure' is quite rare. Non-completion is more common! If you really want to succeed in gaining a higher degree, you are likely to achieve your ambition. Don't let anything stop you!