Productivity,  Research

How to plan ahead and avoid getting caught off guard by risks during the research process

3 Minute Read -

If you’re new here, it might be useful to know I introduced a series of posts that deal with project planning in the research context over the last two months. This post thus forms part of a larger set of blog posts and should ideally be read in conjunction with them. This is the third post in the series. The first post dealt with pinning down the vision and objectives of your research project, while the second post provided guidelines to ensure you have all the resources you need to see your project through to the end. As reiterated in the last post, it is important that you don’t skip these important steps or your project might be doomed for failure from the get-go.

In this post, I will touch on the restrictions or risks which threaten the completion of your project. Without considering the risks, you could naively be working from a project plan which is not built on a solid foundation.

So what is a risk?

Risk is defined as the possibility of something bad happening which can result in a negative or undesirable consequence. The term risk can also be broken down into two elements; namely, impact and probability. The larger the probability of a certain event happening and the bigger the impact on your project, the bigger the risk that particular factor poses to your project’s success. When embarking on a research journey, many risks are posed, as the project is often long-term, and let’s be honest, life happens!

Unfortunately, many risks cannot be foreseen, introducing a large degree of uncertainty into the project while others can be anticipated and planned for. Let’s consider each of these in turn:

Foreseen risks

If you have worked through the last two blog posts referred to in the introduction, you should easily be able to make a list of foreseen risks. Additionally, the more experienced you are as a researcher, the more aspects you can add to this planning process.

But let’s consider a few examples:

  • Suppose you need access to a certain community to do your data collection. If you’re from the community, i.e. an insider, the probability of not getting access to your participants may be low. If you are an outsider though, the probability of not getting access may be a bit higher, especially if no one in the community knows you. If the outcomes of your project are heavily reliant on this access, this poses a significant risk to the success of your project. You may then think about how you’re going to work around this, should this happen. You could think about identifying a similar community to choose as a case study or using a different dataset for your project if this is possible.
  • Another risk may be related to collecting data during Covid-19. If your project requires that you do face-to-face interviews, but you are conducting your project in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, you may think of ways to change your data collection methods, such as using telephonic interviews or using alternative platforms like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or WhatsApp.

If you think about these risks beforehand, you can immediately move to Plan B in the event that any of them occur. If you don’t plan for them, they’ll present like a spanner in a wheel! Can you think of a few more foreseen risks? Leave a comment in the chat below!

Unforeseen risks

We cannot see into the future, so unforeseen risks will also be present. The challenge with them is that you cannot put any plans in place to ensure that you sail through them. I once had a student whose mother passed away during the write-up of their research reports. Others got sick or had to attend to ill family members at the height of the pandemic. Anyone going through something like this cannot reasonably be expected to carry on with their research at a time like that. What is important to remember is that Universities and Research Institutes have mechanisms in place, just like any other workplace, to ensure that you are able to take a breather if you need one.

The best thing is thus to reach out to your supervisor (whether you are an employee or a student) and make them aware of what is happening. That way you can explore which options are available to you.

Thinking about and planning for risks could take less than a day but could save you weeks or months in the long term if any of the risks become a reality. So schedule time into your calendar right now if you can!

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