One of the complicated things about research is that you never quite know how long something is going to take you.
Oh, it’s possible to group projects into ‘probably short’ and ‘very long’, and some spaces in between. But ‘probably short’ can range from 3 minutes to a couple of hours (depending on how many Internet rabbitholes one falls down) and ‘very long’ can be 10 hours or 10 years.
Which makes planning rather tricky.
So, let’s look at some things that affect how long research might take, and then some ways to help plan. Many of them are not only individual to you as a person, but may be specific to particular projects. Unfortunately, there’s no simple solution, here!
Things to think about
Speed of access
One big factor is obviously how quickly you can access what you’re looking for. For example, reading faster obviously helps with some kinds of research, but it’s not a skill everyone has.
Some people have lives that allow them to spend regular time on research – this can save time over a long project because you spend less time remembering where you were, or what you were focusing on.
Others have jobs or commutes that let them get through a fair chunk of new information through podcasts or audiobooks, even if they have to spend some focused time on things they can’t listen to at other points.
And of course, some of this may be about other access needs. If you have a slow internet connection, or limited time to be online, some things are going to move a lot more slowly than someone who has a speedy connection or more time.
If you happen to be at an academic institution, you likely have very quick access to a wide range of databases and to interlibrary loan resources that can get you many articles or books very promptly (in many cases, articles will come within 24 hours, and books within a week or so). That’s true in most places even if your job doesn’t have anything to do with research.
For the many of us not there, there may still be options. You may have regional or state services that provide some of the same options. For example, if you live, work, go to school, or own property in Massachusetts, you can likely get access to the electronic resources from the Boston Public Library.
(Some states and regions and places fund their library services – especially on larger geographic levels – better than others. Sorry, I don’t run the world, or I’d make that possible a lot more places. But in a lot of place, you have to dig a little to find out about these options, and I encourage you to ask and dig a little when you get time.)
Some of these options take more time and planning than others. Electronic resources like journals are usually available when you’d like, but ebooks may be limited to one user at a time. Interlibrary loan books usually have fixed loan periods, and you need to send them back promptly.
It can take some practice to figure out how to time when an interlibrary loan arrives with having enough time from other parts of your life to work with the materials before they have to go back.
And of course, you may want to own materials, but need time to get the money in your budget to buy them, or need to wait for a copy of an older text to show up at a vaguely affordable price.
Grouping similar tasks
Some kinds of research tasks go faster if we do them all at once. For example, if you’re looking at the history of words as part of research on a topic, looking them all up at once in a really good dictionary is going to be faster than doing one, going away, doing something else, and then coming back and having to open up the dictionary (whether that’s physically or electronically), and do more searches.
Similarly, you can
What tools can be helpful? (Todo list that lets you tag by amount of time something will take or whether it can be done while you’re doing other things.)
Not every research question has a simple solution. Sometimes you need a source that is only available a few places (or is in something like an archives or historical society collection.) Sometimes materials will be in languages you don’t read, or not available where you live.
These can be so frustrating – most people can’t go off to every corner just to read a book or find a source. And we certainly can’t be learning every language we might be curious about.
There are some solutions out there. For example, finding people who know or can access the thing you need. This can include hiring an independent researcher to go look at an item local to them, getting help from people working on similar topics, or finding people who read the language you need and figuring out a suitable arrangement for a translation or notes.
This is the hardest – and least predictable – category to solve, but fortunately, as long as you’re making some progress with your research in other ways, you can get traction here. Every time you talk about an ongoing project, you have a chance to connect with people who can help you further (or who know someone who can help.)
Tools to help
So how do you keep all of this manageable? A really good project management system and notes are a great start. One of the most frustrating parts of research projects is when you know you saw a post, or an online article, or a mention of a book, and if you could just remember what it was, it had something you needed. But now you can’t.
This is a place where tools help. Start by writing down your actual questions. For long-term projects, your questions may be fairly vague at first. If so, focus on what you know about what you want to do with the information when you find it. That will help you plan your time better.
More on that in part three, so you can see a couple of examples, but start with whatever you know right now.
- Do you have a specific thing you’re trying to answer?
- What do you want to do with the information when you’ve got it? (Use it somehow? Share it with others? Whatever you know is helpful.)
- What do you already know about the subject?
- Do you see any particular limitations you want to start thinking about early? (Needing specific materials, or languages, or sources?)
Then, as you begin to gather information, keep track of it, so that you can look at what you have and what you would like to have in one place. There are tons of different possible systems about this (and I’ll be talking about the details next post and in future posts.)
Next part: Breaking down large projects and getting a grip on how long they might take.