Embarking on a Research Journey

王琳珠 Linda Wang, Interpretation Track

Five months into my research journey, I can attest to the torture of having to churn out academic papers, and I would really like to extend my respects to those who have survived in this wild academic jungle. Despite the pain, I realized that I am learning so much more than I could have imagined. Therefore, I would like to share the journey with my peers. Hopefully this piece of writing will be of some use for those lingering on the doorstep of their research.

Stage 1 – Brainstorming

Finding a good research topic is like gold panning. You have to be mindful all the time and can’t let any potential leads slip away. I picked up my current research topic, incorporating automatic speech recognition (ASR) technology into interpreting training, when I heard a professional interpreter share how he sometimes performed sight translation in remote interpreting when live captions were provided. But prior to setting my mind on exploring ASR, I had created a list of ideas on the topics that I wanted to work on. These ideas came from the papers we read in class as well as my daily struggles in interpreting training. I would randomly put in keywords in the search engines of journals and see if there were any niches for me to exploit. This is a stage where I would happily jump down the rabbit hole and see where the internet could take me.

Stage 2 – Developing Your Research Idea

Once I made up my mind and after my professor gave me the green light, I did two things that were extremely helpful: talking to people about my research project and reading papers extensively.

I basically talked about my research with everyone I encountered at this stage. I consulted three faculty members after I decided my topic, and those conversations helped me tremendously. The three professors provided me with invaluable insights as to how I could narrow down the scope to make my research feasible and also which areas of literature best align with my topic. I also discussed my research project with friends and family, most of whom knew nothing about interpreting. When talking to them, I had to explain not only my research but also the basics of interpreting, and that helped me connect the dots and find better narratives. Talking to your peers helps as well, but if you are considering inviting them to participate in your experiment or survey, do make sure that you don’t accidentally spill too many details. Finally, another person I found helpful to talk to was Vicky from the GPTI office. She knows every one of our alumni’s research projects and therefore was able to tell me who I could turn to when I encountered obstacles in my experiment. Therefore, if you are still developing your research proposal, “talking it out” with people might help you in the least expected way.

The second thing I did when developing my research project was read literature extensively, which is probably a no brainer for all researchers. But I want to share some tips in regards to the hunt for literature.

First, adjusting the lens from time to time can offer surprising stimuli. When I entered the stage of developing my research project, I read countless papers on computer-assisted-interpreting tools (which was still just a fraction of the whole body of CAI literature, I have to admit), and that was when the lethargy kicked in. Every paper seemed so repetitive and similar that I stopped feeling enthusiastic about my topic. But then I turned my focus to translation studies and ESL studies. Looking into these two fields offered me fresh perspectives on experimental design. Therefore, for those who have become jaded from too much literature review, changing the focus point occasionally might help you regain enthusiasm.

Second, returning to the fundamentals is important. As an inexperienced newbie researcher in the 21st century, I felt like I was constantly suffering from infobesity. During my hunt for literature, I was deluged with new studies and believed that I had to read all the latest papers in the relevant fields to keep abreast of developments, especially when I was working on a tech-related topic. However, I soon realized that while reading new studies helped me position myself in the ever-changing academic landscape, reviewing important past research helped me anchor my work in the larger picture. For me, the anchor is Professor Chia-chien Chang’s research on directionality. I had to present her paper in my class, so I studied this particular research with great scrutiny. The effort paid off when I was designing my own experiment, because I knew from Professor Chang’s research what a good experiment should look like. Therefore, I encourage those who feel at a loss to find your anchor in past literature.

Stage 3 – The Bumpy Road

Once you set the course for your research, watch out for the bumpy road ahead. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to tell you what dangers lurk ahead because I myself have encountered the weirdest thing. One thing led to another and there was a moment I even believed my research was doomed. Thankfully, I was surrounded with supportive people and I managed to ride out the storm. Since everyone has their own battle to fight on this journey, I am not going to dwell on the details and instead talk about the mindsets that helped me survive the hard times.

The biggest nemesis at this stage for me was self-doubt. One common trait of students in translation and interpretation programs is that we are our own worst critic, and a lonely research journey is the best circumstance for our self-doubt to manifest. The most frequent questions I have asked myself at this stage were: what’s the significance of my research? If it is significant, am I capable of carrying out this research? And the list goes on. To be fair, I think these are important questions, but they are the kind of questions you should address in the brainstorming stage. If you have come this far, then your advisor’s approval of the research topic probably tells you the answers. But the habit of self-doubt is hard to break, and even though everyone assured me that things were going to be fine, I was still constantly attacked by crippling self-doubt.

Gradually, I learned to rein in my inner critic. The first step is to acknowledge that for most of us, this is our very first research project. Second, we have to admit that, due to the nature of our field, we simply don’t have the luxury of time to learn how to conduct research properly before embarking on this journey. Finally, we need to see the value of non-significant research findings, methodological flaws, and failed experiments. Up until my very last experiment, I firmly believed that my research was doomed to fail. In these moments when I was instilled with self-doubt, I told myself that my failures would be a great lesson for those who are interested in the same topic (honestly, when I was in this level of despair, I could only let “spiritual victories” do the magic of self-assurance).

Like most things in life, academic research is an uphill battle. However, it also gives us a rare opportunity to explore things that are unknown to the world. As George Orwell put it, “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.” I would consider academic research one of those occasions. Now that I am done with the most excruciating part of my research, I would like to share the rest of my good research karma with those who are still striving (and manage to finish reading this piece). I wish everyone a fruitful and rewarding research experience.

P.S. For those seeking more pep talks, check out this article from Journal of Trial and Error!