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On Using Personal
Experience for
Research Inspiration

Academics' Forum

Allison S. Gabriel
University of Arizona

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The most daunting part about starting a tenure-track position was building a research pipeline that would sustain me through tenure. This shouldn’t be surprising; most new faculty talk about the “publish or perish” mentality that comes with academia, and I certainly found myself in that category. Honestly, if you ask most of the people I collaborate with, they will still say that I am fairly vocal about my fears surrounding publishing. Personally, I think half of the battle is finding the people you “click” with—who are interested in similar ideas, who will challenge you in a productive manner, and who make you want to be a better researcher. The second half of the battle, however, is trying to figure out what to be researching in the first place.

When I first started my tenure-track position back in the fall semester of 2013, I will readily admit that I had no idea how to address that second point. I was fortunate in that I had several projects in the cue with former advisors and graduate student colleagues that I knew I could submit early into my tenure process. But, I found myself repeatedly asking: What now? When the graduate school pipeline dries up, where do I go from there? Having a fairly clear research identity helped answer this in some ways. For instance, I had researched ideas tied to emotional labor and emotion regulation (e.g., Grandey, 2000; Hochschild, 1983) during my time as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, and this filled up my first couple of years on the tenure clock (e.g., Gabriel, Cheshin, Moran, & Van Kleef, 2016; Gabriel, Daniels, Diefendorff, & Greguras, 2015; Gabriel & Diefendorff, 2015; Grandey & Gabriel, 2015). However, I found myself being drawn to new ideas that separated a bit from that early research identity based upon something else: personal experiences. In fact, a lot of conversations I have with coauthors these days relate to experiences—some serious, some funny, and some somewhat in between—that end with us seriously asking, “Hey, could we test that somehow?”

This past year at the Academy of Management (AOM) conference, I built a presentation around this idea—of researching ideas that happened to me in an empirically and theoretically sound way—at a professional development workshop focusing on publishing and productivity. In doing so, I took a recent paper (e.g., da Motta Veiga & Gabriel, 2016) that I published with Serge da Motta Veiga, who you may recognize from my earlier TIP column on surviving the job search, which really began out of personal experience. We met on the job market in 2012 at the interviews that happen at AOM—these are brief (10–15 minute) interviews that business schools use to help sort through their applicants. In reality, we were competitors; every single time I went to meet with a school, Serge was either leaving an interview with the faculty at that program, or was waiting next in line to interview after me! Eventually, we had a conversation that basically revolved around two key questions: Who are you, and what do you research?

Luckily for me, meeting Serge was great because (a) we, along with our spouses and dogs, are all friends, and (b) we ended up planning a data collection that we ran the first semester in our new jobs that spun into one paper that is published, two manuscripts that are in progress, and several other spin-off data sets and data collections. This all stemmed from a simple question: Can we take our job search experiences and see if they generalize to other people? Of course, taking that personal experience question and building it out into a research pipeline isn’t all that simple; there are several steps in the process that I think need to be carefully answered, and doing so isn’t always easy. So, as I engage in some active sensemaking about what has worked for us, here are the questions and/or issues that I think researchers need to tackle if they want to make the leap from personal experience to publication. In answering them, I’m going to pull from our paper (da Motta Veiga & Gabriel, 2016) to explain how that project came to light.

1. What is it that makes this event interesting/unique, and why is it piquing my interest? Serge and I developed a shared interest around understanding the ups and downs of the job search process. In particular, we found that our motivation levels throughout the job search were changing dramatically. At the beginning, we both agreed that we were job hunting because it was fun, and it was aligning with our long-term career goals that we had set. However, as the process began chugging along, the motivation began to shift: Family members and friends were becoming more inquisitive about whether the process was over, the realities of graduate school finishing and needing jobs were really setting in, and all of a sudden, we felt like we were pursuing a job out of all these external sources of pressure versus the fun that it once was. Now, this isn’t to say that the fun and games of the job search totally disappeared. In fact, going on job talks, we agreed, was always a lot of fun because we got to meet so many interesting people. But, two things became clear to us rather quickly: (a) our motivations were varying in quality, or the type of motivation we were experiencing, and (2) how much of each type of motivation we were experiencing was varying week-to-week as well. As such, this event was interesting because our motivation was shifting a lot week-to-week, and this was affecting our search-related behaviors.

2. Have other people experienced a similar event, or am I just an anomaly? In the case of the job search, we had at least an n of 2, so we figured that was a good place to start in answering this question! In reality, we did talk to others who were on the market to see if they were going through similar things (they were), and we also ran it by our nonacademic friends and family members to see if our experience matched what they experienced outside academia (generally speaking, it did). Often times, when I talk to my parents or nonacademic friends about my research—and not just the study I am referring to here, by the way—I wait for them to say something to the effect of “Oh, that makes sense,” or “I could totally see that happening.” I think it is important to stick to the applied part of our work and really answer questions that are affecting “real world” people, because if we aren’t asking those questions, I always have to take a step back and say, “You know, what am I really doing here?” Verifying that your experience is happening to other people can help ensure that yes, this might just be something that generalizes.

3. What is the theoretical framework that this event would fit within? That is, can I address a theoretical gap, or is it just something “kitchy1” that I like only? Applied points aside, the big hurdle is making a theoretical contribution—I have gotten way more feedback on the theoretical contribution of my work at journals than I have the practical implications! For me, this is always the toughest part of taking personal experiences and flipping them into research questions. I cannot even tally up the number of research calls I’ve had that have gone something along the lines of, “Oh, that is interesting, but isn’t that theoretically similar to X, Y, or Z? Isn’t the theoretical contribution already taken?” If I can’t answer the theory question, or I can’t think of a broad contribution to the literature, I stop. A lot of times, this decision is really hard, and that’s the double-edged sword of personal experiences leading to research questions—for me, I get really personally invested when a topic hits close to home, and I have serious escalation of commitment issues when it comes to dropping an idea. Luckily, for the project that Serge and I were working on, we were able to figure out the theoretical gap. Specifically, we realized that the changes in quality (i.e., type) and quantity (i.e., amount) of motivation could be grounded in self-determination theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 1985) and that no one in the job search research had really taken this perspective before. Our experiences could be described consistently with SDT, given that this theory argues that one’s motivation varies from autonomous (pursuing goals because they are fun, valuable, and important) to controlled (pursuing goals due to external pressure, guilt, or shame) reasons of goal pursuit. This was our “big break,” and we ran with it.

4. How can this personal experience/event be studied in a meaningful way? The final hurdle is always scaling an experience to a well-designed study. For me, the questions that I gravitate toward are always intraindividual, or varying event to event, day to day, or week to week, and luckily, Serge’s brain tended to think in that manner, too. This similar mindset is a good thing, because we honed in on the same research design at the same time: a weekly study in which we assessed job seekers’ levels of motivation and effort throughout the course of their job search (about 5 weeks). This let us capture not only the amount of motivation job seekers were experiencing throughout the job search but also how the different types of motivation changed, too, and this was crucial to attempt to replicate our personal experiences. Luckily, things did work out: the results panned out how we thought they would, and this obviously helped ensure that our paper was publishable. But, the best part is that we were able to publish a research story that really reflected us and what we went through. In fact, the last sentence of our paper is: “Our results suggest that, although the job search may start out as fun and games, external pressures and consequences can drive job search success across the finish line” (da Motta Veiga & Gabriel, 2016, p. 359). That one sentence summed up our job search in a big old nutshell, and I’m happy to say that similar personal notes are being hit in our other job search projects.

So, for those of you who are toying around with where research questions come from (that is the age old question, after all), don’t discredit day-to-day experiences that you have. Instead, ask tough, theoretical questions about them to help you identify research ideas. More importantly, don’t be afraid to share your personal story with others during the research process. It will make you feel more connected to your work! Just ask folks who have seen me present about my orange juice story—you really can find research inspiration anywhere.

Note

Urban Dictionary defines this word as really cheesy, yet cool. I know I’m super hip.

References

da Motta Veiga, S. P., & Gabriel, A. S. (2016). The role of self-determined motivation in job search: A dynamic approach. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101, 350-361.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). The general causality orientation scale: Self-determination in personality. Journal of Research in Personality, 19, 109–134

Gabriel, A. S., Cheshin, A., Moran, C. M., & Van Kleef, G. A. (2016). Enhancing emotional performance and customer service through human resources practices: A systems perspective. Human Resource Management Review, 26, 14-24.

Gabriel, A. S., Daniels, M. A., Diefendorff, J. M., & Greguras, G. J. (2015). Emotional labor actors: A latent profile analysis of emotional labor strategies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100, 863-879.

Gabriel, A. S., & Diefendorff, J. M. (2015). Emotional labor dynamics: A momentary approach. Academy of Management Journal, 58, 1804-1825.

Grandey, A. A. (2000). Emotion regulation in the workplace: A new way to conceptualize emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 5, 95–110.

Grandey, A. A. & Gabriel, A. S. (2015). Emotional labor at a crossroads: Where do we go from here? Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 2, 323-349.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: The commercialization of feeling. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.