Research – What is it All About?

I completed my master’s nearly two years ago. It took me 28 months to complete and it was full of long field days, plenty of failures and some successes. Over these past two years I have been working to get it published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Earlier this month I received notification that the research I conducted for my master’s degree is now published and available online!

The main goal scientists have is to conduct research that contributes to the existing body of knowledge and this is done through a peer-reviewed publication process. Getting published in a peer-reviewed journal means that other experts in your field have reviewed it, given you feedback for improvement (if needed), agree that it fits in with that specific journal’s goals and that the work is worthwhile to the scientific community. Published research is then accessible to the scientific community to debate or to build upon. The quality and quantity of publications is often how the success of a scientist is measured these days.

There are lot of different types of post-graduate programs and I often find myself explaining to others what I did as a biology graduate student in a research program. Undergraduate degrees and course-based master’s program are typically prescribed by courses and going to lectures, meeting assignment deadlines and passing written exams to obtain a degree. Conversely, with a research based program my schedule was largely autonomous; it was up to me to decide what, how and when I was getting my work done. Sure I had one or two courses to take and worked as a teaching assistant for others, but my research project was my priority. Earning a research-based graduate degree depended on managing my own research project, communicating my work through a written thesis and being able to defend and discuss my work with other scientists. Although a publication is not required to graduate, it is what many of us strive for to build a career in academia.

How people go about their research graduate degree really depends on their field of research and the nature of their project. For biologists, there are times when one might be in the field or lab collecting data, reading papers, learning a new computer program in order to analyze their data, attending conferences, applying for scholarships, or working as a teaching assistant. The learning style is very different. It is very much about problem solving, critical thinking and being resourceful. A lot of unexpected things might come up that change the course of your day or even the direction of your project. It’s a lot to juggle at once and any good supervisor will provide guidance, but it is certainly a test of time management for the student. The autonomy is something I thought I would find intimidating; no one telling me what I need to do or when? Seems like motivation could easily be lost. As it turns out, I really enjoyed this type of work environment.

I often hear people ask, what’s the point of research? My answer is two-fold: First, research is the formalized process in how we learn and make discoveries, in my field of interest that means learning about the natural world. We ask a question or propose a hypothesis that hasn’t been asked before, then going about a methodical way to find the answer, which gives us insight to how the natural world works. Rarely in ecology is there ever a clear answer, but each paper that gets published in a scientific journal is a piece of the puzzle; it adds to a larger picture. For example, we now know that climate change is a serious threat to biodiversity. We know this because a myriad scientists have studied how the climate has changed over time, how the rise in CO2 affects global and local temperatures, how larger temperature fluctuations in the ocean affect coral reefs, how cutting down forests affect carbon sinks, how melting ice is affecting polar bear populations up north, and the list goes on. It is the accumulation of work by a several groups of scientists in different fields and over decades that inform and support this notion.

Often scientific research does not directly benefit the general public, including in the field of biology and ecology. However, it is important to get baseline information about natural processes or the biology of different species and ecosystems. Not only does it add to an existing bank of knowledge, but understanding how nature works, the details of a species and its role in the ecosystem helps us assess the impact of changes that might occur whether they are predicted changes or unforeseen changes. Going back to the climate change example, research continues to monitor changes and address uncertainties of the impact still to come. Scientists can also better assess the impacts of climate change on wildlife populations when we have a basic and detailed understanding of their biology; how they interact with each other and other species, their reproduction, their behaviour, their habitat, etc.

I also sometimes hear people say that research is too specific, scientists spend their time learning about one specific thing and that’s all they know. If you have read some of my previous posts, you might know that I worked on swallowtail butterflies and how landscape fragmentation affects them. During that time I learned a lot about my study species, but I also learned about butterflies in general, the plants these butterflies need, about insects more generally, landscape fragmentation, how other animals might respond to landscape fragmentation, etc. Not only are these the different subjects I learned about, but I also learned to use R (a statistical coding program), ArcGIS and learned to use more advance statistics. In addition, I was a teaching assistant for a variety of courses and attended seminars and conferences on a variety of topics. Scientists have a specialized area of research, but don’t doubt the broader knowledge base they have gained along the way.

I’ve spent a lot of time applying for jobs in the conservation field and have learned to highlight some of the transferable skills I’ve gained through my master’s experience that might otherwise be hard to come by for a recent graduate. Employers often look for good problem solvers and as a graduate student that is what you are constantly doing. The whole point of research is to solve a problem or find the answer to a question that has not been asked before, let alone addressing all the hiccups along the way. It requires creativity, innovation and critical thinking. Many biologists aren’t trained during their undergraduate to use advanced statistics, fancy computer programs or computer coding, organize a field season, teach, use lab equipment, do public speaking etc, these are skills we’ve had to learn along the way to be able to do our work. Some of these skills I have used for jobs after graduation and others less so. Even for those who may not continue in academia, completing a research graduate degree and potentially publishing that work speaks volumes to being able to overcome challenges and manage themselves. When looking back at my master’s degree, I’m proud to say that I was given an idea for a project – more or less a blank slate – and I was able to make it my own and turn it into something that is now accepted among the scientific community. Or at least by whoever peer reviewed it.

With the Goblet of Knowledge after my defense. Photo by Scott Colborne
With the Goblet of Knowledge after my defense. Photo by Scott Colborne