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So you want to be a researcher?

I am happy to say I have survived my first week of coursework. I am also happy to say that I am (so far) enjoying the coursework. I had fully expected the program to be rigorous – research can be difficult work.  I was not expecting the program to be so challenging to my understanding so quickly.

Challenging? Yes.  I had in my mind a concept of research from my MPH, and I understood the parts of a study and how to put it together.  But I am getting the impression that is the work of a technician really.  A researcher starts several steps back in the process because it takes more than seeing a clinical problem to identify good research questions. I don’t have a concept of what it is yet, I’m sorry.  But I know it goes beyond the basics of evidence based practice.

An example from my readings this week. One of the reasons we use theory is because it allows us to predict. As a clinician, this has been my level of theory work – and by itself this can be challenging.  My concept of cause and effect in wellness will determine how I work with a client. However, the authors from this week’s readings debate the concept of a theory that goes beyond predicting – ways of thought in which predictive theories become only a piece of the concept. I feel as if I can glimpse this idea, but not fully grasp it because I can only think of it in clinical terms –  as similar to a health system or similar to a religion.  In a religion you might have a theory about prayer that tells you when and how and how much and what you can expect to change due to prayer.  But in that religion, prayer is only one piece of the puzzle of how to grow spiritually, and in most religions is not sufficient without other practices.  Or in a health (wellness) system, I think of the use of yoga, a practice which has many variations that all agree yoga is one key to a healthy and balanced life.  But in each of those variations is built in the idea that yoga in itself plays only one part and the healthy individual also has other practices such as meditation and deep breathing, or nutritional prescriptions. A person can practice yoga outside the health belief system, and can add it to another health belief system – and the question then becomes how that changes the yoga practice and how it changes the health beliefs. But notice, I am still thinking in terms of the clinical.  At least I know I learned how to think like a midwife.

I feel like I’m not describing this very well, but that is unavoidable.  I’m only one week into the process and have a very limited understanding of this difference myself. But I am diving in and working hard to “free my mind” from the thought patterns of clinical work. As far as I can tell, my mantra for the next year should be “Question Everything.” Scary really, because I was a rather skeptical and critical person to begin with (probably what drew me to research), and I’m finding I am not even on the first step of learning to critically analyze like a researcher.

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Jennifer Vanderlaan CNM MPH is the author of the BirthingNaturally.net website. She has been working with expectant families since 2000, training doulas, childbirth educators, and midwives. She has worked with midwives in Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Her interest in public health grew in 2010, and she is now a PhD student learning to become a producer of knowledge.

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