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Research literacy is essential for evidence-based careers work

Many career development practitioners (CDPs) strive to make decisions based on evidence. This is a good thing. Evidence-based practice and evidence-informed decision-making are widely used approaches in fields such as health care, social work and education, and recent work seeks to build from this to create a model of evidence-based practice for career development. Evidence-informed approaches can help CDPs adjust client practices to achieve superior outcomes, increase credibility in efforts to influence policy and assist in obtaining or maintaining funding. 

The challenge for CDPs, of course, is knowing how to engage with evidence responsibly and ethically. As a practitioner, you can quickly go online and find an abundance of information available, of varying quality and trustworthiness. The risk of “doing your own research” is that, as a non-expert, you can be misled by poor-quality studies and can easily misinterpret the results of good-quality studies. For areas outside our own expertise, writes Vinod Goel, “[t]he only thing most of us can do is follow the advice of specialists. ‘Doing our own research’ simply amounts to making a decision on whom to believe.” 

Dr. Loleen Berdahl will be presenting a free three-part webinar series with CERIC on “Using Research for Evidence-informed Career Development Practice,” starting May 18. Learn more and register at ceric.ca/webinars.

For this reason, I encourage all CDPs who wish to draw upon evidence and research to start by establishing a basic understanding of research, or what some refer to as “research literacy.” As a professor who has been teaching and writing about introductory social science research methods for over a quarter-century, I believe strongly that basic social science research literacy is important for everyone, and not just social science undergraduate students. 

Social science research encompasses questions of human behaviours and societies across a wide range of areas, including (but not limited to) education, business, law and politics. Social science research literacy means understanding how social science research is done and how it should be interpreted. 

Given its relationship to society and politics, social science research literacy allows us all to be effective, informed citizens. And for many people, including CDPs, social science research literacy is an important career skill that allows professionals to engage with information and evidence responsibly. 

The good news is that you do not need to go back to school to build basic social science research literacy. However, you do need to be diligent in planning to build your knowledge. As Nathan Ballantyne and David Dunning write, “​​If you are going to do your own research, the research you should do first is on how best to do your own research.”

“… social science research literacy is an important career skill that allows professionals to engage with information and evidence responsibly.”

There are a number of introductory resources available to get you started. These include the open-access materials I designed for the University of Saskatchewan course POLS 256: Understanding Political Science Research, as well as the open-access student resources from the first two chapters of Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science, an introductory textbook I co-authored. Beyond my own work, there are courses available through Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, edX and Udemy. Building your social science literacy simply requires your willingness to invest the time to learn.

As you start on your journey of building your social science research literacy, be sure to keep in mind that “evidence” lies on a continuum. At one end of the continuum, the body of evidence is strong: there is a robust number of studies, and these studies have solid, appropriate research designs. In the middle, the evidence is emergent, with a growing number of acceptable studies, or limited, with no or a small number of studies with solid research design. At the far end of the continuum, the evidence is misleading: there are a few studies with serious design flaws.

Appreciating that evidence lies on a continuum can help you avoid overstating the current state of knowledge. While it is tempting to want to accept the results of a single or handful of studies – particularly if these studies confirm what we already believe – responsible engagement with research means being able to assess both the research design quality of a single study and the size and consistency of bodies of evidence. This understanding alone can help prevent you from placing too much emphasis on thin bodies of knowledge.

Peter Robinson argues, “Evidence is essential to enable practitioners and services to best meet the needs of their service users.” Responsible and effective use of evidence requires a foundation of social science research literacy. I encourage all CDPs to establish this foundation and to keep building it over time. It is a valuable career skill.

Loleen Berdahl, PhD is an award-winning university instructor, the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and Professor and former Head of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Loleen has spoken about student skills training and academic professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program, and she is the award-winning author of University Affairs’ The Skills Agenda column. Loleen’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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Loleen Berdahl, PhD is an award-winning university instructor, the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and Professor and former Head of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Loleen has spoken about student skills training and academic professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program, and she is the award-winning author of University Affairs’ The Skills Agenda column. Loleen’s most recent books include Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press; with Jonathan Malloy) and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science (Oxford University Press; now in its 4th edition with Jason Roy).
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