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The Research Trilemma November 3, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Academically Speaking.
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The holy grail of academic research is to offer insight on something intriguing, with relevance to the real world, and in such a way that it will not be relegated to some footnote in history. However, it is the academician’s holy grail for a reason: the more I think about it, chances are that any given research, regardless of how important it is in the eyes of the researcher (or the world at large), meets at best only two of these three criteria. After all, theses have to be written and papers published come hell or high water, so it is rare – if not impossible – for a piece of research to “have it all”.

This is the research trilemma, as I see it:

  • The topic of any piece of research may be interesting, and the researcher can argue to no end that it does have some practical dimension. However, more likely than not the research itself will border on esoteric.
  • Something very esoteric can have practical application (describing perhaps a whole chunk of the economics literature right there), but let’s face it: it probably won’t be very interesting.
  • An esoteric subject can be very interesting, but by virtue of the former it will probably have very little practical use.

    Of course, this is a very sobering epiphany for someone that must put together his dissertation in the not-too-distant future. As far as I’m concerned, when the time comes my money will be on interesting. I have no qualms about writing something that may or may not be either esoteric or junk; but if I ever end up writing about something boring, I don’t think I’d be able to survive.

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  • Comments»

    1. Jason dV - November 3, 2006

    When I was doing my master’s thesis, many moons ago, I vowed not to write a thesis that was so esoteric that it would just remain on the shelf and gather dust. It turned out that that areas of interest to your thesis or dissertation director and most of the academic in your field does not, for the most part, coincide with the areas of interest to the rest of the world.

    I, too, am in search of a focal point for my dissertation that would be of interest to people other than my dissertation director and the memebrs of my dissertation defense panel. When you find the answer to this dilemma, don’t forget to post and share it with the rest of us 😉

    2. John-D Borra - November 4, 2006

    I remember the sage old advice I got from a friend, who, ironically, isn’t from the academe: “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullsh!t.” He’s parlayed that particular bit of folksy wisdom into a gated community run by Ayala Land. Still, I remember trying to pass off “Male Pattern Baldness and the Overwrought Classical Wunderkind: the Caesarian Coif and the Decline of Republican Rome” as a viable research topic, so I guess we who remain in the academe are not averse to raising a cloud of confusion to mask our lack of wisdom. 🙂


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