What I love about research in higher education (and research in the social sciences in general) is that it’s a collective goal to further our knowledge. The dissertation in particularly isn’t intended to be some revolutionary piece of work that defines your field: it’s designed as your first major contribution to an ongoing conversation among researchers, a small piece of the overall picture that we’re all trying to puzzle out together. That’s why the literature review is a key chapter in the dissertation (and a key part of every research article); it situates your research along others in your field. The lit review is designed to say, these people did this, and so I am building on that by doing X [insert study description here]. Or you may say that these researchers studied A, and these researchers studied C, and so I plan to study B (or to link A and C–you get the idea). Keeping this in mind during the dissertation process makes it 1) less intimidating and 2) feel like the significant contribution it can be, instead of a futile exercise in persistance and academic hazing.
One of the things I found most intimidating in art history was the notion that in studying these very old pieces of work, you’re constantly running into all the things already known or hypothesized about them. I had the misfortune of being attracted to over-studied early Renaissance works, so for my thesis I delved into lesser-known works–actually liturgical objects that in their time were viewed not as art but as symbolic and utilitarian tools of the church. The notion of art being something tangibly useful and significant does excite me, but what bothered me about going further into art history as a career was the feeling that to make substantial research contributions, I had to view old objects through a new lens–social theory, feminist theory, queer theory–or find objects that were obscure enough that no one has substantively studied them yet. I’m attracted to viewing these liturgical objects with a social lens, but I doubted my ability to make a significant enough contribution to warrant my time or further education.
There’s definitely useful research to be done in art history, but coming to the study of higher education was amazing for me. Here’s a field in which the knowledge is growing because what we’re studying–the practice of higher education–is ongoing and changing, and also because it’s something we can observe and measure in a more objective, quantifiable way.
In short: 1) I never dreamed I’d pick social sciences over the humanities, but there you have it, and 2) huzzah for educational research!