In the last year of my international baccalaureate career, I was confronted with a problem I had not faced before. To write my extended essay in history, I had to do undergo a rigorous and exacting amount of research into my topic of interest. I had done research on smaller scales before and for specific assignments, but it was the process of writing that 4000 word essay on the origins of Islam that helped open my eyes to what ‘research’ truly was. What follows is a short primer on what the term means to me, and how understanding it’s essence has helped me.
Research, at its core, is the process by which one can learn the truth, whatever form that truth may take. There are specialized tools and instruments that a researcher in a particular field utilizes that others in other fields would not, but the principle remains the same: how can I get the right answer to an important question? Looked at in this way, research becomes less of a stuffy academic term that conjures up images of old dusty men flipping through old dusty books, and more of a necessary component of humanity. We, as a species, have been attempting to get answers ever since we evolved from our primate ancestors (though perhaps one day, our own research into primate biology will show that we were not the only ones with that capacity!) and most likely always will. Modern students may not recognize the work of ancient thinkers such as Parmenides and Confucius, or ancients texts such as the Upanishads and Tao Te Ching as research, but they all explore ideas on how our world was formed, where we came from, and how to live one’s life, questions that continue to motivate current researchers.
Today, of course, many of the questions that we are interested in are best answered through the scientific method; wherein instead of merely thinking about the world as the philosophers and prophets of the past did, we test the world and study the nature of its response. This allows for a more objective lens, one that is not coloured as much by the various ideological biases we are all inevitably burdened with (but does not eliminate them altogether). Science has allowed us to determine our place in the world, in the galaxy and in the cosmos, it has gotten us on top of moons and distant planets and unlocked the secrets of the beating heart but it has also helped unleash destruction on a scale that was hereto unimaginable. Scientific research is what is known as descriptive rather than normative, it tells us the nature of things as they are instead of how they should be, and there is no tool better at the job. When we ask questions on how things should be however (e.g. should nuclear weapons ever be used?), we are forced to turn to research in philosophy and ethics (a specific branch of philosophy that studies the nature of good and evil).
Research, whether it be scientific or philosophical, is about getting answers, and we live in an age that bombards with questions from all directions: is global warming a threat, can we travel faster than light, is there life on other planets, which drugs should be legalized and which should not be, how can we fight ebola and ISIS, the questions are seemingly endless. Knowing how to get answers, then, is a vital skill to have, and it is a skill that will be tested in whatever academic stream that a student wishes to pursue. In my freshman year of university, I received the opportunity to accept a laboratory position that many of my peers were hungry to receive; the reason I was selected, above all else, was my experience with talking about and understanding what it means to get answers to questions, to conduct research. It was a skill that I have used again and again in a variety of classes and extra-curricular activities, and even in my leisure time to understand more about things that interest me (film, literature, sports, video games, etc.).
In addition to giving you the building blocks for a modern academic life, having a good understanding for the process of research also instills in you an innate curiosity and creativity. When you know the correct and best way to get answers, you will find that the questions bubble out of you in an ever-increasing pace, questions that might help determine the future of not only your life, but the lives of humanity as a whole. Figuring out the right question to ask, after all, is sometimes half the struggle.
This is not a call to arms for everyone to become researchers, rather it is to help let you all realize that, knowingly or not, you have conducted research over and over and over again (no matter how young or old you might be), just as we have all ran or jumped or punched at one time or another. But just as there is a correct way to run and to jump and to punch, so is there a correct way to conduct research; knowing the proper technique to do so can help you write extended essays, as it helped me write mine; or perhaps, it will help you achieve things much greater? And if you want to answer that question, then you better get researching.