Embracing anxiety can help us do better research

Anxiety is widespread in academia, among faculty members and students. However, anxiety is not unequivocally a negative emotion. Karl Gustafsson and Linus Hagström argue that it can also be a creative force. Anxiety can help us develop better ideas and research problems. It can help us do better research

Advising the anxious graduate student

As graduate students, we experienced anxiety on a regular basis. When bracing ourselves to receive feedback at seminars and conferences, we were often uncertain how our drafts would be received. Moreover, supervisors, discussants and others often asked: 'So what?', 'What’s the point of your research?', or 'What is your research problem?'.

Together with our fellow grad students, we scrambled to provide justifications for our dissertation projects. But it was a challenging task. While we had plenty of methods textbooks to read, there was limited guidance on how to answer the 'so-what question'.

As graduate students, we were often asked 'What is the point of your research?'

A few years ago, we decided to write a paper with the aim of helping graduate students to answer the so-what question. We wanted to give them, and others, the kind of guidance we rarely received. The resulting paper, What is the point? Teaching graduate students how to construct political science research puzzles, appeared in European Political Science back in 2017.

We presented this paper many times, while working on it, and after it had been published. We have used it in our teaching and asked graduate students to read and reflect on it. A number of scholars and students seem to have appreciated it. Indeed, many have expressed their appreciation. Colleagues have also told us how they use it in their teaching. To date, the article has been accessed more than 85,000 times from the EPS website, vastly outnumbering the readership figures for any of our other pieces!

Becoming anxious about our own advice

However, despite the article's broadly positive reception, some graduate students, as well as senior scholars, were critical of it. They seemed to think that we conceptualised research problems too narrowly. Others just appeared frustrated with the advice we provided. As a result, we began to feel anxious about the guidance we sought to provide in the article. Apparently, it's not only students who get anxious.

Even though we are professors, we still experience anxiety. When we first experienced this anxiety related to the criticism of our article, we did not take it seriously. To some extent, we dismissed it. We made light of it. We even blamed our critics for not 'getting it'. You might see these responses — our responses — as defence mechanisms.

At that point, we sought to deal with our anxiety by refusing to take in the criticism or to properly reflect on it. Over time, however, we began to face, and eventually embrace, our anxiety. We tried to figure out what it was telling us. We started asking ourselves and each other more seriously why some people were critical of, or frustrated with, the article.

As we began to face, and eventually embrace, our anxiety, we understood that the advice we had provided was not without its own problems

Eventually we came to realise that the advice we had provided, while well-meaning, was not entirely unproblematic. Maybe some found it challenging to construct a compelling research problem despite — or even because of — our advice? Maybe our somewhat technical advice made it seem as if it should be easy to develop a research problem? Perhaps the advice put even more pressure on graduate students, and possibly also their advisors? Maybe it added to rather than alleviated their anxiety?

Developing a new idea (and article) by embracing anxiety

Anxiety, doubt, self-reflection and questioning our own work led us to conceptualise a new idea: that the process of coming up with a research problem is laden with emotions. Our previous article had failed to take emotions into account. Other published advice on developing research problems had also neglected emotions.

So, we realised it is crucial to pay attention to the role of emotions, particularly anxiety, when developing research problems. At this point, we hit upon an idea — and a research problem — for a new article: Why is it so difficult to construct a compelling research problem, despite existing guidance on the topic?

We came to realise that it is crucial to pay attention to the role of emotions, particularly anxiety, when developing research problems

We had already imagined a preliminary answer: There are emotional aspects involved in constructing a research problem but they have not been sufficiently addressed.

Once we had the idea, we developed it to see if it made sense. We consulted theories about anxiety. We read pedagogical research that takes emotions into account more generally. And we had many long discussions. Eventually, we came up with new advice that we hope might help others face anxiety and develop research problems.

We presented the new paper many times, and refined our advice. We then submitted it and anxiously awaited the reviews and editorial decision. Finally, it was accepted and published. The published article does not pretend to offer the ultimate solution on how to come up with research problems. Indeed, developing such advice might be a never-ending process. However, we hope at least to be moving in the right direction. We hope to offer some preliminary food for thought that we, and others, can question and build on.

The insecurity of doing research and the 'so-what question' in political science: how to develop more compelling research problems by facing anxiety is published in European Political Science

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Karl Gustafsson Karl Gustafsson Professor of International Relations, Stockholm University More by this author
photograph of Linus Hagström Linus Hagström Professor of Political Science, Swedish Defence University / Senior Research Fellow, Swedish Institute of International Affairs More by this author

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