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How Do You Know You’ve Reached Your Research Goal?

Football field goalposts.

It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question. “Have you met your research goal?” The answer to such questions, however, can often be far more difficult to ascertain than you initially thought.

To wart, the goal must be very specific, leaving no room for ambiguity. It must be possible to look at the goal and give a simple yes or no answer to whether it has been met. Many times goals actually leave this open to interpretation. One person might say that the goal has been met, but a different individual looking at it may say that the goal has not yet been met. Goals that cannot reasonably be measured make it difficult to impossible to determine success. This is why it is so important to properly define them from the beginning.

Properly defining goals starts with clear wording. One major problem with goal setting  is that we is that we know what we mean when we write something down, but those not trapped in our own heads with us (i.e., everyone else in the world) lack that knowledge. Thus they can easily come to their own conclusions, leading to issues of whether or not the goal was met.

One commonly-used phrase that falls into this trap is “Who is . . .” This wording is very vague, and means different thing to different people. In order to fully answer this question, one must know every piece of information about the individual. What was their occupation? Where did they live? When and where were they born, marry, and die? What property did they own? What were their pets? What were their religious beliefs? What were their political beliefs? etc. Anything less than finding everything about the person, does not answer the question “Who is. . .”

Research problems dealing with questions of identity need to be much more clear. They must be written with wording that is specific, so you can easily determine when you’ve met the goal. For example:

  • Identify the parents of John Doe.
  • Determine the relationship between John Buck and Jane Doe.
  • Identify the place of birth of John Doe.

Question like these are very specific. A goal to identify the parents of John Doe, for example, shows that we are looking to uniquely identify them: not just by name, but clearly identifying which specific individuals of those names are the actual parents.

Research goals like this are measurable. It is easy for anyone to determine whether the goal has been achieved. Avoiding the “Who is. . .” questions will make you work infinitely easier, especially when collaborating with others.

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