Demystifying Research for the Indian Psychologist

Besides being engaged with clients or students, some psychologists might undertake research, not just as an alternative to lazy weekends, but to earn a decent living. In fact, most psychologists are meant to practice, teach, and research, in some combination or the other.  These three distinct (yet interconnected) roles require different sets of skills, and graduate and post-graduate training is usually targeted to develop such skill sets. Psychologists who practise can also conduct research with clinical samples, similar to researchers who conduct studies with their students. As an undergraduate student of psychology you may well be tired of being asked to read people’s minds, but you also should have taken part in a professor’s research project.

However, most Indian students of psychology have hardly had this opportunity, and that is a cause for great concern. As a result, most undergraduate (and in some cases, postgraduate) students hardly have any understanding of research in psychology and research methodology.

So how do undergraduate students grasp what research is? One way is through the arduous Lab sessions that are a mandatory part of the curriculum for psychology majors. And another way is… Um… Yes! When they’re required to complete a Research Methods course as part of post-graduate study. And then, training in research is complete (?). At least as complete as it could be to receive a passing grade, anyway.

Given such limited exposure to the rigors of scientific research in psychology even at the postgraduate level, chances are the student will often be dissuaded from doing/participating/assisting in research for the rest of their careers. Unless of course, the resilient few go on to complete an MPhil or a PhD (and I completely empathize with you!). Yet, an additional degree often does not guarantee adequate training in research, because the quality of training vastly differs from one University to the next. No, this isn’t the difference between one institute teaching Path Analysis and the other not; this is the difference between being exposed to a flourishing research environment, with innovative principal investigators, and enthusiastic participants, and an ethics committee that distinguishes right from wrong, and co-investigators who cooperate more than compete, and… basically, a culture for research.

This is a utopian view, where systems and processes are stable, and the profession of a social science researcher commands respect. But reality  tends to be a bitter pill. The notions of research and the profession of a researcher are often misconstrued, misperceived, and misunderstood, not just in a discipline like psychology, but in the sciences as whole (which, by the way, include social sciences). Scientific illiteracy can contribute to such a state of affairs, where individuals may not only be ill-informed about how to think analytically and interpret scientific conclusions presented in popular media, but may also be ill-informed about what the components of science and research really are. Although critics of this opinion may throw Indian literacy figures in the air, I oppose the criticism by stating that most individuals who have the fortune of receiving higher education are literate, but are often scientifically illiterate. And this lack of information, combined with poor monetary incentives to continue researching, significantly contributes to students being dissuaded from entering research.

So now, I’ll break down some myths of research in India that I’ve come across.

Yes, research is fun, if you make it so.

No, natural science research and social science research are not at par; the former often receives more funding (often for completely valid reasons, too).

Yes, research requires resilience, commitment, and internal motivation (in more than equal proportions).

No, the monetary payoffs aren’t great; but the feeling of contributing to knowledge more than makes up for it.

Yes, if you’re good at it, you’ll go places, get published, and the whole deal.

Yes, you’ll receive credit for your work, most of the time.

No, you won’t receive funding for all your ideas.

Yes, research is creative! Scientific creativity is prized above all else.

Yes, you can choose any topic under the sun that can be plausibly studied about, in a scientific manner.

No, you won’t be able to plagiarize; integrity is one of the corner stones of academic research.

Yes, seeing your name in print in an article that you’ve toiled over for months on end really makes it worthwhile.

No, it isn’t easy.

It’s a tough road ahead for social science researchers here, and I admit, it isn’t all roses and peaches. But I’d urge students of psychology, and other social science disciplines to give the profession a chance. After all, dismissing something without knowing what it is, is a marker of scientific illiteracy. In the spirit of the indomitable Mr. Spock (and Leonard Nimoy): “Live long and prosper!” and research!

 Hansika Kapoor