By Robert M. Matchett
What does it mean to be a sociologist? This is a question that I have spent the last seven years of my life trying to answer. We know how to define sociology; but what does it mean to be a sociologist? Here is my take on this question. Being a sociologist is in many ways like being a superhero. Everyone who comes into the field has an origin story of how they became a sociologist (or a sociology major). They have experiences that acted as a calling to this field, and that act as a motivation or a drive which allows them to do the work that they do. Also, everyone in the field has unique skill sets, which are kind of like superpowers, that allow them to tackle pressing social issues present in society.
Although sociologists, like superheroes, are unique in many aspects, one way in which they are all alike is how they discover and present information about social phenomena. The primary way that sociologists communicate about the world is through the research process. Constructing a research project at first can seem like a rather daunting task, especially to an undergraduate student who has never done something like this before. But, it is something that can be accomplished with ease (well, hard work). In this paper, I discuss my own origin story that explores not only how I became a sociologist but also how I found a passion for research. I then talk about how I used that passion to create and develop my own original research project that I presented and refined until I reached a thesis topic for my master’s program.
A SOCIOLOGIST IS BORN
On March 5th, 1993, in the middle of a blizzard, famous in Pittsburgh’s history, something that would forever change the world was happening, a boy was being born. A boy who would grow up in adversity, but turn those struggles into motivations, and then use that to change society. Before he would gain his superpowers though, he would have to face many obstacles, one of the biggest being himself. When I think about comic books and superheroes, this is how I hear my origin story playing out in that deep theatrical voice that they play at the beginning of the movies. Even though it has a lot of dramatic flair to it, it is all true. When I look back on my childhood and all of my life experiences now, I always jokingly say to my friends that I was born to be a sociologist. The truth is, though, that for a good part of my life I had no idea what that was. How I found out was a complete and total accident. An accident that would change my life forever.
Tyler Oakley (2015), in his book Binge, talks about his path to finding his dream job, describing it like finding a needle in a haystack. He states, “Finding my dream job was like finding a needle in a haystack. It was a crazy party in which every failed path I followed was like an attendee required to take away a single straw of hay as they departed, one by one. It took a while, and I eventually found that needle, but I couldn’t have done it without failing over and over”(p.228). His process of finding that dream job is similar to the process that I used to find my major. From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to teach and influence students in a way that would help them discover and pursue their true passions, I just didn’t know at what level, and in what content area I wanted to teach. Eventually, I ended up at IUP where I realized that I had this passion for higher education and that the college environment was where I wanted to teach. I did the grand tour of majors trying everything from art education to environmental biology because I wasn’t staying true to myself. Eventually, I ended up in a dual baccalaureate program in Disability Services and Sociology, and then everything just made sense. It made sense because for much of my life I have faced adversity for daring to be different. I was questioning why things were the way they were, fighting for change, and advocating for others through my passion for social justice, and this was before I even knew that I was engaging in sociological conversations.
Once I figured out that I was in the right place in terms of dual majors, I owned every moment of that experience. When I found issues with something in my environment, I challenged it and I didn’t back down until something was done. One of the biggest issues that I noticed early on in my time as a dual major was that, regarding disability awareness and disability sensitivity, IUP lacked tremendously. I did everything in my power to change that. I challenged deans to get American Sign Language accepted as a foreign language for Liberal Studies requirements; I revived the Sign Language Club; I developed a relationship between the Sign Language Club and the Indiana County Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing; and I developed and implemented what is probably one of the largest on-campus awareness events, Autism Awareness Week, and ran that for two consecutive years. For me, though, none of this was enough. I could advocate to every dean on campus, and hold hundreds of programs to make people aware of issues related to students with disabilities, but it wouldn’t mean anything unless I had some form of evidence to back up my claims. I needed research, but not just any study would do. I needed to develop my study, ground it in a strong theoretical framework, and show individuals on campus how issues related to disability directly impact them and their experiences. The study had to be IUP specific. The only question was, “Where do I begin?”
LEAPING LIZARDS, BATMAN! WHERE DO I BEGIN?
Walking into SOC 460 (Social Research Methods I) on my first day I was so nervous. I had friends who had gone through the course, so I knew something of what was going to be expected before I even walked in the door. I knew that along with the typical college lecture that you get in most classes, it would require me, as part of a group, to construct and implement an original research project. I didn’t know where to even begin with that; it was an assignment that seemed so intimidating. I had no idea where I was going to start.
The first thing that you want to do when you are deciding on a topic is to think of things that you are passionate about. Ask yourself, “What sparks that fire inside me?” Research projects can be long, and tedious. This one, in particular, is going to be a part of your life for a year. So, there will be times where you are going to need that fire to get through things. Second, once you have your topic, make a concept map. Get those ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper. Locate the different paths that you can take during the research process. Third, do a free write. Sit down for a minute with a piece of paper and just reflect on your ideas about the topic you are thinking about. Lastly, ask yourself questions about what you want to know, why it is important, what you will have to do to research the topic, and if it is manageable given your timeline. The good news is that if you don’t know how to do any of that, the course is very user-friendly with lots of worksheets and activities to help you develop those skills.
525,600 RESOURCES, HOW DO YOU WRITE THIS LITERATURE REVIEW?
Writing this now as a graduate student, I am not going to lie, literature reviews are the worst thing in existence. I always write the literature review last. However, they are essential. Your literature review provides the context for your study. This is where you conceptualize important topics and talk about how the existing literature informs your research, and what theoretical concepts you are going to use. For this piece, you don’t want to summarize the articles you, want to synthesize them. This can be tricky and take some time. One of the hardest things for me, personally, with this part of research is maintaining balance. You have to figure out how much information is enough and how much is too much. Luckily, there are some good tools out there that you can use to help guide you through this process, like the handout you get that explains exactly what you should do for the literature review. Also, don’t be afraid to have your peers look over your papers.
Additionally, you want to use scholarly peer-reviewed journal articles. Credibility is really important, as the research you are doing discusses important topics. Wikipedia is an okay place to start, but not a great resource to cite. During this time of the project, the library is going to be your best friend and here’s why: In addition to the thousands of books in the main collection, the library can order you any book or journal article that they don’t physically have. They have a variety of materials and equipment that you can borrow, including a room with a green screen for videos! They have media pods that can allow you to do some cool things and, most importantly, they have the reference librarians. Each of the reference librarians can help direct you to anything that you could ever need for your research.
Lastly, use the Writing Center, really for this whole project, but also specifically for this piece. The students who work there are usually English majors with a great grasp on spelling, grammar, and APA style. This is a great resource that you have at your disposal, and it can help. If you’re like me and you prefer technology to people sometimes, look for programs that can help you. Mendeley is a great free app/program for building up a collection of references and doing citations. Grammarly, in its free edition, can do things such as check spelling and grammar issues. However, if, like me, you need the extra help in those areas, the premium version has more advanced functions that are incredibly useful.
METHODS, DATA COLLECTION, AND ANALYSIS, OH MY!
On her way to the Land of Oz, Dorthy Gale accompanied by the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, reach a forest that they don’t like because its “dark and creepy,” riddled with scary noises. They look hesitant to continue down the path. Determined to get to Oz and have their wishes granted, they link arms and chant, “Lions and tigers, and bears! Oh my!” In the construction of my research project, my forest that was “dark and creepy” was the methodology. I was determined, however, to continue with my research because it had an important purpose, one that could change the culture at the university. So, I did what any sane person would do, and I traveled through the forest of methodology a little hesitant and freaked out chanting “Methods, data collection, and analysis! Oh my!” until I eventually reached what was the undergraduate researcher’s equivalent of Oz, The Undergraduate Scholars Forum.
Methodology intimidated me a lot because in constructing a research design, there are theories and logic behind every step to collect and analyze data. In addition to this, in my study the sample of participants were faculty and staff at the university, some of who are experienced researchers. So, I was concerned about their perceptions of my survey instrument and its components. I took a lot of time to go into the Research Methods course instructor’s office hours and ask tons of questions. I made friends with the graduate assistant and spent countless hours with him trying to learn how to do calculations and work the statistical software, SPSS. The point is that–even though methods, data collection, and analysis are all terrifying things–you have a variety of useful resources. So go to the professor’s office hours, talk to the graduate assistant for your class, or make an appointment at the Applied Research Lab. Those are all excellent resources that can help you be successful in this process.
FOLLOWING THE YELLOW-BRICK ROAD: REFINING YOUR RESEARCH AFTER PRESENTING
Much Like Dorthy Gale who was encouraged by the Munchkins to travel down the yellow-brick road to get to the wonderful Land of Oz, I was encouraged by my professors and mentors to follow my yellowbrick road. After the completion of my project for Social Research Methods I & II, I had some opportunities to present my work in a variety of locations, each with a different audience.
IUP Undergraduate Scholars Forum
The first place where I presented my research was that the IUP Undergraduate Scholars Forum. As soon as I knew that presenting there was an option, I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to make it possible. This meant working on revisions to the project over break and staying in contact with the professor for the course every step of the way. I had never been to a professional conference before, so I didn’t know what to expect regarding the type and size of the audience. I was a little nervous, but I was well prepared.
Going into the room where I was presenting, there were three other researchers and all of the people who came to hear about the work that we had been doing. Each of the researchers was given 15 minutes to talk about their projects and then used the five remaining minutes to answer questions. What I found as I was presenting was that it got easier to talk about the stuff I was doing the longer that I was up there. During the question and answer part of the presentation, I got a lot of good feedback. I knew at that moment that my research was essential to the campus and that I needed to do something about what I found in the data. So, I took all of that feedback and went back to the drawing board, where my project began to grow.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) Diversity Summit
The second place where I presented my research was the PASSHE Diversity Summit, where the theme was “Making Inclusion Matter.” This time around I was doing two different types of presentations. The first was a poster presentation on my research that I presented at the Undergraduate Scholars Forum. This was much different from the original oral presentation. I preferred oral or “paper” presentations because they were structured and I had my time to talk and then a brief time for questions. The poster presentation was much more intimidating to me because people just would come up ask questions about my research. I had to know my talk inside and out, and gave my short speech multiple times. The PASSHE Summit was a unique audience too. There were many more faculty, and they came from all around the state. It was an excellent opportunity to network. Among the people who came to see my research was the President of the university and the Vice President of Student Affairs. I walked them through my project and told them the direction that I planned to take it as I moved toward completing my thesis. They liked the idea so much that I got a meeting to present the project and my future direction to them in more detail!
The second presentation was a panel discussion on my experiences as a person with disabilities on campus. I was invited to be a part of that panel because, through my research and my advocacy work, people were beginning to know me and the importance of the work that I was doing. So, I sat on a panel of disability advocates and scholars, and we shared our stories, talked about what should change, and what that change should look like. It was a fascinating and rewarding experience. So, whether you present in your class, at the Scholars Forum, at another conference, or all of the above, listen to what people are saying to you about your research. Find the ways that it can grow, develop, and impact people. The most important thing to remember is that you get out of this project what you put into it. It can be just a class project, or it can grow into something much more.
TO INFINITY, AND BEYOND
Scholarly work–whether it is writing, research, or both–is a process. You don’t just sit down in one day and compose this beautiful masterpiece that has no flaws. There will always be flaws, limitations, new angles to explore. New knowledge that is produced that will challenge your work. It is so important to sign up for conferences, present to your peers, present to faculty, present to other sociologist. When you present, you are adding to a conversation about your research interest. Each time you present you get feedback from others that you can use to shape and refine your project and develop it until you have something great. I never thought as I was going through Social Research Methods I & II as an undergraduate Sociology student, that I had something that was so great that I would present it several times, including to the top university leadership, developing it until I reached the topic of my master’s thesis. That’s the crazy thing about life, though; sometimes great things happen when you least expect them. My overall message to everyone reading this, but specifically, seniors taking Social Research Methods I & II, is take the research process and own your project seriously. Own every moment of it, because what at first seems like just another project you need to graduate can turn out to be a study that shapes your future and career, taking you to infinity and beyond!
For more information on Rob and what he is up to now visit his website at https://robmatchettsociologistblog.com/