Student Research: Why, What, How?

What is Research?

When people say “research,” they often think of people in white coats gathering around a bench to pour out test tubes and cause chemical reactions. But not all research is like this. There’s more to research than STEM.

To put it too simply:

In the natural sciences, research is typically about trying to understand things outside of ourselves, largely because we want to know how they affect us and whether we can change how they affect us. E.g. viruses, earthquakes.

In the social sciences, research is typically about trying to understand what people are doing as it were in spite of themselves – how human societies as a whole behave even if their individual members don’t want to, how individuals behave even when they don’t understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, etc. e.g. why relationships sometimes don’t work despite the best efforts of the people in them; how democracies die; etc.

In the humanities, research is typically about understanding our place in the world and understanding how people do now, and in the past have, made intentional efforts to better understand their place in the world. E.g. culture, literature, art. Humanities research is therefore most often interpretive and/or creative.

tree of knowledgePhilosophy is one of the humanities, largely because it’s not considered one of the others; but philosophical research is at the intersection of all three of these. There are three reasons for that.

  1. Simple reason: for every field there’s a “philosophy of…” that field, where we investigate the assumptions and methods of that field – e.g. philosophy of science, philosophy of medicine, philosophy of literature – and if you get really advanced in that field you start working on the philosophy of that field.
  2. Foundational reason: other sciences originated in philosophy and only became sciences after philosophers had articulated a set of problems and methods, so for instance psychology originated with philosophers in the late 19th century, Isaac Newton’s work was called Natural Philosophy, and so on.
  3. Relatedly, in philosophy you study the questions and problems for which we have no clear sense of what a scientific method would look like in that field, or we have no agreement on it. So for instance metaphysics and ethics. These are fields where so far the only test of truth is having the best argument; we don’t know beyond that what exactly would count as evidence or a good dataset or scientific method that could settle ethical questions. That doesn’t mean there’s no right answer; reason alone can be powerful and compelling, and after all, physics started out in philosophy and there are right answers about gravity and the motions of the planets. What it does mean is that research here involves two most important methods:
    1. Critical reasoning – especially the application of logical methods, testing hypotheses, etc.
    2. Creative reasoning – coming up with new thought-experiments (or real experiments), new methods, new ways of approaching questions so they might be easier to answer, and so on.

Fortunately, these are very general and widely applicable skills that will serve you in any discipline and also in the job market and beyond.

That makes philosophical research in a way easier and in a way harder than research in other fields. You can get started in philosophical research without knowing any “methods” or having any apparatus other than a computer keyboard or a pen and paper, and access to the library. You read what others have said about a question that interests you, and you start responding to their arguments. At first your responses are not very powerful, but they spur you to read more and think more, be both more critical about your own assumptions and more creative in getting past them, and soon you find yourself joining a community of scholars thinking and talking about an issue.

WHY do research in philosophy?

Two instrumental answers:

  1. One benefit is its job market payoff. Our students have gone on to some amazing careers, including as researchers.
  2. Another benefit is its payoff on standardized tests.

But philosophical research is also valuable for its own sake. It helps you rethink basic assumptions and find new ways of thinking. Research in philosophy doesn’t have a single method. It can be done in a wide variety of ways, if you’re asking philosophical questions and learning philosophical lessons. There are philosophical novels and poems, movies and plays, even philosophical games.

My philosophical research has very directly shaped how I think. Most straightforwardly, my views on the middle east have changed, and on Indigenous people’s rights and decolonization, as have my views on solidarity and justice and immigration and the environment and many things. I think I’ve become a person of greater integrity and empathy than I was before. Of course, that probably doesn’t say much because I was a jerk before. But philosophy has helped. However, my philosophical research has also enabled me to understand better and learn about a wide range of issues because in order to apply your philosophical research to the world you need to learn something about the world. So I started reading environmental history and Indigenous peoples’ history and geography and political science and economics and sociology. That kind of thing. This is a good reminder that disciplines don’t compete; good research is very often interdisciplinary.

--Avery Kolers

In short, philosophical research most often doesn’t look like research in labs. It’s rare that you’d be hired on to be part of a team that was managing equipment and so on. There are some philosophical research labs and some philosophers who try to organize their students into a ‘lab’ model, but the fact is, most often, philosophical research is something you do on your own and in conversation with people.

So where do you go to get started?

  1. Anyphilosophy class.
  2. If you’ve taken a bunch of philosophy classes already, consider an independent study or a thesis. To find a mentor, look at the full-time faculty list and think about: i) whose classes have I taken, and done well in; ii) given the question(s) I’m interested in, who would be good fit?