Is the foundation of your research sound?

At the conference I was at, I was presenting a poster (and gave a talk) on some of my PhD research (not surprising). However, the specific research is what I refer to as the “first step” or the “proof of concept” research. The research that, if it had failed, would have meant, we needed to rethink the project and possibly scrap it all together.

One grad student I talked to, specifically commented on this, and said it was nice to see someone actually testing out the groundwork before proceeding. That this was something that it seemed like many people forget to do. And, based on some of the other talks I heard at the conference, it’s definitely true that not everyone works to confirm their research makes sense before proceeding. In fact, one presenter even had someone ask, “how do you know that the concept you’re trying to prove even makes sense to try in the first place? Maybe that’s why your results aren’t great.” The presenter had suggested that the lack of quality results was because of the limited dataset that had been used, but couldn’t answer this question. This presenter, hadn’t done the initial study that would have said either “yes, you’re heading down a reasonable path” or “hold on, these don’t seem to actually have anything to do with each other.”

The first step of my research, while published (yay), is nothing super ground breaking. Other people have done similar studies in the past to part of the research. We took these studies, did a few modifications, and then added an extra element. And then we reconfirmed that the results were still valid. This means, that as I work on future steps, I know what I’m building off of. It’s not a guessing game, and if people ask, I can point to these earlier studies and say “look here, we already showed that.”

However, it’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time to take a step back from your research and try to look at the assumptions you have. What are you assuming about the data? About your participants (if you’re using them)? About what you’re comparing against? If someone asks you why you decided to compare what you’re comparing, or chose the path you did, can you answer without having to resort to be “because we thought it was a good idea”? And if it is because you thought it was a good idea, then try to find a way to change that into either “because this experiment confirmed these initial assumptions were valid” or “this research backs up our research.” This will likely require extra work on your part – searching out the supporting research or creating an experiment. But it’s worth it, so you don’t get caught unable to answer should someone ever ask you.

Besides, if you’re lucky (and I think I will be in this case), this initial work and possible experiments can extend out into more publications on your work. I already have one, and from some extra data we collected, there’s another 1-2 that may be pursued. And these are publications that I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t done this step. Which makes the work completely worthwhile.

On top of that, by getting this chance to present my work at a pretty preliminary stage (even though I’ve moved passed that into the next stage), it gave me a chance to get some feedback from others and suggestions about other possible routes I could take from here. Or other concerns and things I should think about as I proceed. Outside feedback like this is crucial, because it’s very easy by yourself, or even with a research group, to get caught up in what you’re doing and miss something that’s obvious to an outsider.

What steps have you taken to make sure the foundation of your research is solid? Are you running any preliminary experiments that could have the possibility (as scary as it is) of derailing your entire project?

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