Monday, July 11, 2011

Grad Students & the Research Agenda

[This is another post that originally appeared on Unstable Euphony]

I've been thinking about Jonathan Mayhew's idea of the research agenda over the past few days, and how it might be tweaked at different stages in the academic career. Mayhew, for example, is an expert in his field, a senior scholar who has been researching, writing, publishing, and teaching Spanish poetry for quite some time. He articulates his research agenda, saying,

"My research agenda is to better the state of poetry criticism in my field (modern, contemporary Peninsular literature) by relating it to larger intellectuals trends in intellectual and cultural history; to trace the genealogy of the late modern movement in contemporary Spain; to integrate the contribution of Lorca into modern Spanish poetry in a more convincing way."

Mayhew's explanation of his research agenda is clear and concise. But what about someone like me? I'm a graduate student, a jr. scholar in my field. I know what critical conversations I'm interested in, and I'm even beginning to contribute to them, but I definitely cannot articulate my own research agenda like Mayhew can. Thankfully, Mayhew acknowledges the fact that his research agenda continues to fluctuate as he himself continues to research, write, and grow. Obviously, some consistency is absolutely necessary. For example, Mayhew's research agenda has probably never included the environmental ramifications of recycling.

As a grad student, or as a jr. scholar more generally, the research agenda can become a double-edged sword if not understood properly. Early on in an academic career, before a research agenda can be clearly defined, it would be easy to miss out on potentially productive projects for fear that they might come to seem aberrations in your research agenda. A jr. scholar might shy away from a project that could ultimately become a constitutive element of her evolving research agenda.

But beginning to develop a research agenda at an early stage can also be very helpful. It can save a younger scholar from spreading himself too thin, from chasing after every shiny thing that might appeal to her, from building a CV that demonstrates no coherent intellectual narrative. That's why I'm so glad Mayhew included the reference to how his research agenda continues to evolve, even as an experienced and successful scholar in his field of expertise.

Most importantly, the very idea of a research agenda can provide burgeoning scholars like myself with a concrete opportunity to stop and ask ourselves what we are contributing, or plan to contribute, to our chosen field of study. In trying to articulate my own research agenda this week, I developed a better big-picture understanding of what I was doing, and also had a nice "aha" moment when I realized that I am in conversation with another scholar I had previously overlooked. This kind of meta exercise should be a part of our daily lives as academics, and as jr. scholars especially.

Mayhew goes on to say more about the research agenda HERE and HERE.


  1. My earliest research agenda: I remember telling my first grad advisor upon entering grad school that I wanted to do something similar for Spanish and Latin American poetry that Marjorie Perloff had done for American poetry. It's never really too early to begin to define an agenda.

  2. Just as long as you arrive at a more precise definition AFTER you get your first TT position. I have found that the way the market is today, all future employers want to hear is that you are dedicated to exploring new venues in research, teaching, and service. Coming to the job market with a precise "I want to do X" is going to limit your opportunities.

  3. As I work on all my job documents for going on the market, it becomes more and more clear in my field that employers want you to be able to articulate where you think your own work is going in relation to how you would fit into their particular dept.

    All the tailoring is almost crazy!

  4. Term paper outline writing is an additional type of academic effort that can be done by any student within any curriculum. There is no need to repeat to every student or researcher that importance should be attached to the outline. See more paraphrasing in an essay