December 3, 2015

Thinking like a Researcher

Emma Milford

The independent study project is one of the most unique features of the School for International Training (SIT). In this month-long period, each student conducts a research project, analyzes the findings, and presents to a panel of advisers. I have spoken a bit about this period already, but I think I may have missed pointing out a very important discussion.

Since our first day on this program, our directors have been encouraging us to start brainstorming on what we might want to do our ISP. We were conditioned to treat every guest lecturer as a potential ISP advisor, and to critically think about and examine each topic as a potential ISP subject. We were encouraged to engage with our material in a way that pushed us to ask questions that do not have clear answers.

I would consider myself inquisitive and curious, but before this program, I had never thought of thinking of the world as a giant opportunity to research. At its center, research is really just a formalized way of being curious, trying to find the answer, and sharing that answer with others. I think the main difference between simply being curious and conducting research is that research has to have a practical way of figuring out the answer. You can’t only speculate the whole time – you have to get on the ground and learn from people who are best qualified to give opinions that will help you determine your answer.

Speaking of talking with people (no pun intended), one of the most valuable lessons I learned from the research I conducted is that sometimes those who I thought might be least ‘qualified’ in terms of certificates, degrees, and/or leadership positions, gave the most interesting information. My research placed huge value on the importance of every voice and every opinion. I couldn’t discard opinions because they did not match what I wanted to hear; rather, I probed harder to get to the root of the opinion to understand the fundamental difference of why the opinion was different than mine. I listened to everything each person said and treated it with the utmost respect and authority; yet, at the same time, I questioned everything and pushed for more answers.

Putting on the ‘researcher’ hat for a month has made me think much more about all the structures we have in place to guide our societies and relationships. Instead of just noticing challenges, I find myself thinking about ways I could figure out why the challenge exists or how the challenge could be better addressed. I am asking more thoughtful, analytical questions and even though I rarely have the answers, I know I am becoming a more critical problem solver.

Yet one more reason why, if you have the opportunity to go abroad, you should choose an SIT program! (That, and you might get to see South Africa play Angola in a 2018 Soccer World Cup Qualifying Match in the World Cup Moses Mabhida Stadium!)