Developing a Research Agenda

November 12, 2014

By Milena A. Keller-Margulis, University of Houston

Despite how much and how often the term “research agenda” is used, there seems to be no agreed-upon, or formalized definition to be found. Many different entities may have a research agenda including entire fields of study, funding agencies, and of course individuals. We propose the following definition of a research agenda; a roadmap or framework that guides inquiry. A research agenda may be both global and specific. Ideally it is used to specify gaps in knowledge in a specific area and serves to guide the direction and development of new projects and research questions. A clear research agenda serves two important purposes. First, it can help you communicate to others what you study and the area in which you have developed (or are developing) expertise.  Second, it serves to guide your decision-making about what projects or specific research questions to pursue. Ultimately, you must be interested in and excited about the topic(s) at the heart of your research agenda.

Strategies for Defining Your Agenda
It is never too early or too late to begin to develop your research agenda. It should not be considered static, as the process of developing an agenda is inherently reflective and ongoing. The best way to determine the general topic of your research agenda is to pay attention to the topics that interest you the most. You might discover this through reading the literature but these ideas may also surface through your practical or field-based experiences. These opportunities help to refine what might be a more global topic area into more specific or narrow research questions that have practical significance. Lastly, do not be afraid to test drive some areas of interest by getting involved in research, seeking out opportunities to explore new areas, and talking to other people with similar interests. These activities will help you narrow your focus to the topics and questions that are the most interesting to you.

How to Put Your Agenda into Action
Once you determine your general topic(s) of interest, the actions you take are what solidify your agenda. The two key ways to accomplish this are to (1) conduct research in the areasthat are the focus of your research agenda, and (2) disseminate the products of your research agenda. Generating new research and then disseminating it through writing for publication is the most critical way to further your developing agenda, and of course, contribute to the scientific literature. This can take many forms including writing proposals for conference presentations, writing grant proposals (small or large), and writing for publication. Dissemination can also be informal and involve reaching out to others who are doing similar work in order to identify potential collaborative relationships. All of these actions serve to communicate your agenda to others while at the same time developing and further refining your ideas.  Ultimately, having a research agenda means that you not only have specific topics that you are interested in studying but that you actively engage in research to advance that literature base.

Here are some general tips to consider:

  • Use your Research Agenda as your Roadmap: One of the most exciting aspects of working in academia and engaging in research is the limitless topics and projects you can pursue. This is also a challenge because you have to make choices as to where you will invest your time. Evaluate each potential research opportunity for the degree to which it is consistent with your agenda.
  • Develop an Infrastructure: There are some logistic or infrastructure elements that you might consider in the early stages of developing your agenda. You should consider what you need to facilitate your work. Do you need space or support in the form of research assistants? Materials? Access to certain settings or populations of interest? Build a team of students to help you advance your agenda.
  • Get Connected: Another strategy to further develop your research agenda is to collaborate with other scholars who are interested in the same topics. This can be accomplished in an informal way by meeting at conferences (e.g. attend social hours or networking events) or sending a friendly email but there are also structured mentoring/networking opportunities you can utilize. For example, the Society for the Study of School Psychology (SSSP) hosts the School Psychology Research Collaboration Conference every other year. This opportunity brings together junior and senior scholars to support the development of collaborative relationships. Reaching out to other professionals who work in settings that serve populations you want to study is also a great way to develop field-based research partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

Developing and furthering a research agenda takes time and commitment but having a clear area of interest that you find exciting, ensures that it will be a very rewarding endeavor.

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