How to Succeed with Research

With many new Universities being established in Malawi, one of the key challenges relates to research. Most are well aware that, to be worthy of the name, a University has to be active in research as well as in teaching. A university is not supposed to be just recycling knowledge that already exists. It is supposed to be creating new knowledge. The way to do this is by being active in research.

However, it is one thing to aspire to be a research-active institution. It is another to become one. A consistent theme in my encounters with budding Universities in Malawi is that they are conscious that they have the aspiration but they do yet have the reality. There seem to be many factors that inhibit success with research. How can dream be turned into reality?

This is essentially the question I have been asked to address when I visit the University of Livingstonia next week. So my homework is to work on nine questions that they have posed and to have some answers by the time I arrive in Mzuzu next weekend:

  • How to become active in research
  • How to identify research topic(s)
  • How to form a research plan
  • How to do research at low cost
  • How to enable research and teaching to nourish one another
  • How to build collaborative research
  • How to get from inception to completion
  • How to get research published
  • How to share responsibility in joint/co-authored projects

Not sure if I know all the answers but the first step is always to ask the right questions.


  1. At the University of Otago, in Dunedin New Zealand, the support for research supervisors, and post-graduate research students has been developed over the past decade in ways which have been I think quite important.
    1) A Higher Education Development Unit provides seminars and support, usually in the form of 90 minute to two hour sessions regularly through the year. I have found these especially helpful for taking up a supervision role.
    2) Cultural groups have developed their own support structures for their students (with university support) which have been especially important for Pacific Island and Maori students. These include social activities, celebrations of research progress, interventions for those finding it difficult, and an annual presentation of papers by research students.
    3) The pastoral care of students is important, but although supervisors should be pastoral, their role is primarily supervisory, and others are more appropriate in dealing in detail with the personal issues which are part of every research story.
    4) An ethics committee may seem an administrative burden, but it is an important safeguard.
    5) Support for use of technology, including word processing and bibliographical software.
    6) Discussion of what plaigarism actually is, and how it is to be avoided, is needed in some depth as culturally it is not all obvious what it means in practice.
    7) Imported cultures of supervision need critical reflection and adaptation. Care is needed with the assumptions of expatriate staff who may be involved. Americans give and expect very affirmative comments and feedback, lots of stroking. English universities have a reputation for being the complete opposite where the only feedback is negative. There are horror stories here of people from other cultures not understanding what is going on.
    8) As an examiner and a rescue supervisor I frequently come across problems caused by research topics which require expertise in more disciplines than are necessary creating unecessary failures. Adding sociological research requiring significant quantities of data and statistically analysis to research. A topic may be adequately valid by use of literature, critical reflection, and informal oral engagement, unless the sociological skill set and its tools are primary – which they may be.
    9) Cultural and hermeneutical skills are often under-recognized, and the particular knowledge gifts of each language and culture need to be affirmed. International benchmarks are important, but these are seldom presented with much regard to the needs of other cultures. With the best will in the world it is impossible to escape the challenge this presents for universities as well as students to be fluent in more than one research language and culture as they set their own standards.


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