So what is your research all about?

One of the questions you get asked most as a researcher is ‘So what is your research about?’. At an early stage of my research I used to recite the initial broad title because in all honesty I didn’t know what my research was about.

My original title was ‘Product design for a more sustainable and inclusive built environment’, encompassing people, products and buildings. Only two of those initial title words made the final cut four years later – Design (in a different context) and Inclusive.

The ideas of people and buildings was however consistent across the four years of the research. This is what it was really about. I struggled to really understand this  until at the two year stage when I had to clarify my thoughts into a mid-way dissertation.

Research Scope Diagram

On one hand I had the fields of inclusive design and human-computer interaction making up the people aspect. On the other I had buildings, which covered their energy consumption, legislation and all the products that sit within them.

But buildings don’t really consume energy, people acting within buildings do. The energy consumption happens when the users interact with the building to achieve a goal. The novel aspects of my research lay here at this cross over.

The interesting stuff seems to happen at the boundaries between disciplines. I’ve always referred to my work as interdisciplinary, as it ties the themes of buildings and people together but this is made up of many further disciplines in their own rights. I found this post from the Research Whisperer both interesting and also confusing. I cannot clearly pick one of the disciplinary prefixes, cross-, multi-, inter-or trans-, as at times it has been all of them.I think it’s important to recognise this, that research often doesn’t sit within the one discipline. It takes from many and the scope narrows over time.

What is important is that you can communicate your research to someone within each discipline in a way that is meaningful to them. One exercise I would recommend is writing out a list of 4-5 potential people you might want to tell about your research and tailoring the response to that audience. Then memorise a couple so you can role them out in a confident and articulate manner when required. I selected four people who asked about my research and formulated a sentence for each (listed below). I focussed on the bit of the research most relevant to them to try and engage them with the research.

Person 1: An engineer within the sponsor organisation with an in depth knowledge of buildings
Answer: My research is looking at how people influence domestic heat energy consumption through their heating controls.

Person 2: Someone doing research into human computer interaction you met at a conference
Answer: I’m examining heating control user interfaces, their usability, with particular reference to older people, and how this might effect the associated energy consumption.

Person 3: Your examiner (think very carefully about this one)
Answer: This research is an in-depth study examining whether more inclusive heating control systems could enable reductions in domestic heat energy consumption.

Person 4: A interested parent, in-law or friend
Answer: I’m trying to understand why heating controls are so difficult to use and how you could improve this. In turn this might help people reduce their bills and save some energy.

While each sentence is slightly different underneath they are the same thing with emphasis on different aspects. Hopefully this will stop the panicked feeling you might get next time you’re asked to give your research ‘elevator pitch’ and do you and your research justice.

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3 responses to “So what is your research all about?

  1. To other turtle/reptile/herpetology researchers, I tell them that I am currently studying the nesting and reproductive biology of the freshwater turtles in Malaysia.

    But to you and other non-turtle/reptile/herpetology researchers, I would tell you that I am studying the frequency that a certain species of turtle lays her eggs, how many eggs she lays each time, and the various stages of egg development in the turtle’s womb. OK, or something along these lines 😀

    • Exactly, the second option is more accessible to me (as I don’t know anything about turtles). If you started telling me Latin species names of turtles you study, which other researchers in the field would know, I would be totally lost!

      • Unfortunately, not many people know this “rule.” I read a somewhere, which basically means that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t know much about it yet.

        So whenever I’m sharing my research interests to strangers and those not in a similar field, I always imagine that I’m talking to my young nephews and nieces 😀

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