Making the most of research leftovers


You all know about leftovers. The bits of a meal that you couldn’t quite finish. The remnants that end up in a plastic box or a covered bowl in the fridge. Mostly you get round to eating them for lunch afterwards, yum. But occasionally you find a long forgotten leftover lurking behind jars – it’s no longer so appetising. Perhaps it’s become an inedible science experiment. Still, it’s great for the compost.

Researchers also often have leftovers. Yes, research leftovers. Research leftovers can be little scraps of stuff. The odd bit and piece that just didn’t make it into the final argument. But sometimes the leftovers are rather more substantial. Data we’ve not used because we just had too much. Extra data generated just in case, but only needed as general gist. A test analysis rejected in favour of something more persuasive. A theorisation abandoned as a more plausible approach muscled in. A vignette excised because it didn’t fit within the word limit. A set of interesting categories that weren’t robust enough to support the current argument. A side story we had no time to tell.

A lot of us end up with research project leftovers. Once upon a time I interviewed a group of people who I thought were going to be important to my study. The interviews ended up being quite peripheral to the issue I was focusing on. I didn’t need to say much more in the final text than they weren’t much involved, and then wonder why. But I did then have interviews surplus to requirements. Leftovers. I never used them I’m afraid and I still have vaguely guilty feelings about people’s gift of time and words even though they did help me understand the situation I was researching. But I can still muster up echoes of frustration about ‘wasting’ data. I had stuff there that I might have been able to do something with. But I didn’t.

You’d think I’d have learnt from that experience but alas. My colleague Chris and I always generate a lot of material in our funded projects. But the pressure to publish and get more funding in limited time frames means we never quite get around to using it all. We have leftovers. But we are getting better at going back to this data and thinking about what it might have to offer.

I hope those of you doing PhDs take some comfort from the fact that it’s pretty common to have research leftovers. We just don’t talk about them that much. But if you ask, you will find that it’s not entirely unusual to generate stuff that you don’t get around to working with. Mostly this is not about a lack of will, and more often the practicalities of contemporary scholarship. I’m also betting there’s many a PhDer who has had to unwillingly part with painstakingly generated ‘stuff’ in order to craft the thesis text to a word limit and get it submitted on time.

But here’s the thing. Letfovers can be re-used. All those little scraps, jottings, worked samples, playful experiments, reluctantly abandoned theories, unloved interview transcripts and apparently irrelevant cross tabulations might just be the basis for a something new. Rather like turning the leftover vege stew into a pasta sauce, it is often the case that apparently stand-alone research bits and bobs can have a life of their own.

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the research leftovers. Keep them somewhere handy. Make sure you know where you’ve put them in case you work out how to re-engage. Keep an ear out for any insistent whispers that there is still have some life left in the material. That these fragments were not spent effort, they can still be interesting and useful. They can be re-approached and re-worked and re-imagined.

Leftovers often come into their own after you’ve been awarded the Doctor title. At the time when you want a rest from the thesis. When you just can’t face the text or the data again. It’s too soon. You’re over it. But well-meaning others are telling you to get going. And you do want to get cracking and write and publish. Put yourself out there as the newly Doctored scholar. But you feel the energy draining away every time you sit down at the computer.

Or perhaps you are the more experienced researcher who is just feeling stale. Perhaps you too just can’t face going back – to a research report that ought to become something else, to the stuff that ought to become a book or the killer article. Or it may feel that you’ve got nothing much to say. That you’re worn out, drained, done. You can’t line up for more peer reviews. You’ve had enough of publication churn – but you know you must.

This is a pretty good time to check out the leftovers. There may well be something that you put aside that is now suddenly tempting. Maybe there’s an idea worth pursuing. There’s material here that might just say something new. The stuff seemed a bit off-piste at the time, but now you look at it, there might be something there. Or there’s an entirely new project just waiting to be developed.

Don’t give up on the research leftovers. They benefit from being warmed up again – lo and behold, they’ve matured and got more tasty. And once you’ve found the reusable stuff, how about a bit of a brainstorm, a bit of a free-write to see what you might be able to do. Generate a few possibilities. Get creative. Playful. Think laterally.

Perhaps those leftovers are different enough from the PhD, or the funded project, to get you going again. (And if they don’t, that’s OK too.)