Demystifying Academic Research: My First Time

Academic research is very intimidating for someone on the outside. Speaking as that someone, academia seemed to me like this dark cavern where conversations are laced with jargon and sentences are made twice as long to seem more important. There is a lot of prestige attached to degrees and faculty titles and university rankings. I only have an undergraduate degree, from a non-tiered teaching-focused institution. Even though I always felt I do have something to add to the academic discourse around gender, development, and ethics, I have never really been in a position to voice them.

I definitely never touted the title of researcher, because don’t they have to have PhDs? I still honestly wonder this—if there is something I just don’t know that I don’t know, a hidden gem discovered by wandering the hallowed halls of professional academia. My friends in PhD programs currently and my college professors assure me there is not any such secret society of researchers—for one, there are dozens of branches of research across hundreds of disciplines—but frankly, I am not convinced. So, just know that the following process could be entirely wrong and by following it, you may be blacklisted by all the academic secret societies out there.

With that disclaimer about my true credentials out of the way, I want to tell you about what I have learned about research from the amateurs purview. Equipped with my moral compass, can-do-attitude, and a truly wonderful Jesuit education from my teaching-focused university, I set about becoming a researcher in my AIF Fellowship year.

I designed and conducted a research study assessing that knowledge and attitudes toward menstrual hygiene, reproductive health, and sexual abuse prevention among caretakers of women with disabilities in rural Puducherry. This was part of I Too Am a Woman, a broader initiative to improve health and safety for women with disabilities in Puducherry.

Writing it out like that always makes it sound intense and important, like I am in fact waiting to hear back from my dissertation committee right after I’ve convinced you I knew nothing. But really, I just employed the same trick I always felt intimidated by! Throw in some fancy jargon and a very long sentence.

When I first started my study, I spent a good chunk of time fretting over half-baked ideas scattered across Excel sheets. I realize now that I doubted myself so much because I was worrying about that big secret I wasn’t privy to, and was scared of being discredited from the get-go. If this is a fear that resonates, just ask yourself, who is trying to discredit you?! Someone needs to read your research first to even attempt that!

I did not come up with I Too Am a Woman by myself. It was the brain-child of my supervisor, the Director of Satya Special School, and still, she was wonderfully hands-off. She basically gave me a vision for the program and told me to run with it. She never explicitly told me to conduct research first. But I knew we needed some data to guide our programming and training efforts, and needed to record the baseline to accurately monitor and evaluate our impact.

This research study had to accomplish several lofty goals. (1) Understand the education levels, personal beliefs/attitudes, and numerous social and environmental factors impacting families with women with disabilities (2) Understand what kind of healthcare and access to resources these families had with regards to managing menstrual hygiene, reproductive health, and sexual abuse prevention and use these to (3) get input and develop resources via Satya Special School to help these families to help create an safe and healthy environment for women with disabilities.

It was important to not only gather data around primary factors—those directly related to these topics, such as the understanding of the reproductive system, social stigmas and myths related to menstruation, trainings given around sexual abuse prevention—but also secondary factors like household income and family household makeup. Often times, secondary factors were bigger determinants of the kind of care feasibly possible in rural, low-income homes. I came up with a mixed-method approach, using a quantitative survey and qualitative Focus Group Discussions (FGD).

I developed a 34 question survey to collect numerical data. I developed this mostly by reading and understanding other surveys, then adapting that to make my own. I started by looking up (on Google and Google Scholar) studies I could replicate. However, my subject was really niche, so I couldn’t find another study that looked at exactly what I was trying to do. However, I did find related studies such as one from the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation on attitudes among college students in India toward child sexual abuse, or Save the Children’s guide to creating a Menstrual Hygiene Management program in schools. I also found several studies that would have fit my requirements very well but didn’t actually share their surveys or question guides in their Appendix to model mine from. This was the first majorly frustrating norm (or lack of norm) that I encountered in academia, and I won’t follow it! You can see examples of my tools below, and I’ll be sharing the entire documents as an appendix to my published study.

I took a similar approach to create the tools for the quantitative portion of my research. I created Focus Group Discussion guides with around 30 questions each. This was a bit more challenging than the survey. It was a hard project to get right for two reasons and I ultimately wrote several iterations of each guides. The first major problem was translation. I wrote the guide in English but the FGDs were conducted in Tamil by my coworker and co-facilitator. She often had to find the closest possible translation, which carried a different connotation. Also, syntax in Tamil follows a different subject/predicate/verb order than English, so sometimes the questions that were supposed to be open-ended came across as yes or no questions. Luckily, I understood Tamil well enough to follow the conversation (this ended up being vital so I could course correct when a question was not translated correctly or asked in the way I intended it) but we still encountered a lot of problems trying to write a speaking guide for someone else to speak with, especially across languages.

Even when we did get the translation right, there was a lot I did badly in writing questions that facilitated open conversations. The two FGDs we did, which ultimately ended up being pilot discussions, were an exercise in trial and error. I learned that when I asked the women in our group—all mothers of women with disabilities—a question with too much context or “is it more like this, or more like that?,” they will take that opportunity to say as little as possible. They will say “more like that” or simply yes or no. They won’t elaborate. Part of the reason for this was that the more I (or my co-facilitator) spoke, the more we came across as persons of authority. The participants felt they had to give us a right answer, and in lieu of having one, gave us little to no responses instead. I had to start reframing the questions to be very open ended, to say as little as possible so that they would not feel judged or be guided toward an answer. In doing so, it started to open the group to answering questions with stories (or at least little anecdotes about what their lives, their daughters lives, their households look like). Ultimately, this is what I was wanted.

It wasn’t entirely perfect, even by the end. The part I honestly never figured out was how to get the women to answer about their own experiences and beliefs, and not just a general testament to what happens in their communities. I still always got responses like “well they tell us to not eat chicken on our periods” or “you’re supposed to sleep on a separate mat on the floor during your period” but that didn’t quite answer my question if they actually strongly believed these practices, and would pass them onto their child. In the quantitative surveys, I got a lot of incomplete survey data. I realized after that there were some better ways I could have framed questions and that the design of multiple checkboxes got confusing. I wish I could go back and ask each of my 164 respondents to clarify their answers so I could present at neat and clean data set, but obviously I can not. I still have a lot to learn about research, so I won’t try to give you any grand take-aways. I will say that, considering this was my first, amateur attempt at conducting a wide scale social science field study, and keeping in my that the real value of this study was not perfectly analyzable data, but getting a picture of the landscape to design meaningfully impactful programs within I Too Am a Woman, I feel pretty good about where it ended up.

And where it ended up is a couple of research conferences! I just got finished presenting at the Gender & Sexuality Conference (virtually, though originally supposed to be in Sri Lanka), and next month I will be presenting my study at the International Conference on Public Health.

Homepage of the Third International Conference on Gender and Sexuality, held virtually due to COVID-19 (https://genderconference.com).

Srisruthi "Sri" Ramesh is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Satya Special School in Karuvadikuppam, Puducherry. For her Fellowship project, she is creating a training manual on menstrual hygiene management and sexual reproduction to educate adolescent girls with disabilities, their parents, and their care givers. Sri is a San Francisco Bay Area native with family roots in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. She is passionate about ethics, gender, and development in South Asia. While in college, Sri founded a student organization for careers in social impact and was awarded a university fellowship to work at Equal Community Foundation, a Pune-based non-profit focused on gender equality. After graduating, Sri worked at Ernst & Young and later spent a month reading and writing on an island in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys cooking and baking, reading historical fiction, and doing armchair philosophy with friends who will indulge her. She is very excited to be a part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship community, explore new places in India, and improve her Tamil. She hopes to pursue research on development in South Asia after her Fellowship year.

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