There are some questions you never want to get when you’re presenting your research. I got my least favorite question during the Q&A of a job talk. Things had gone relatively smoothly (phew!) and then I was asked: “Aren’t these findings…….expected??” I could see during the pause that the person was looking for a nicer way to say “obvious,” but the effect was the same. It took a topic that was important to me because it exposed racial inequality and assessed it on whether my results were predictable or not. To be fair, it’s common to ask job candidates questions that push them to see their thought process, but this question is the result of a broader issue with the demand for novel research in social science. We are into the second century of empirical social science research. There are no original ideas! There are only new ways of thinking about previously researched topics.
Expecting scholars to produce novel findings is pretty unreasonable in this day and age. And yet it is a common message to graduate students that the only way to publish and get an academic job is to have novel findings. As someone with “expected” findings, let me tell you, you can have expected findings and still publish and even get an academic job. Why? Because even if something is obvious and predictable based on prior theories, if it hasn’t been tested yet, it is a contribution to study and document it. This means testing old theories on different populations, phenomena, and contexts ARE contributions.
Telling graduate students they need to have novel findings only discourages students from pursuing topics they’re interested in because the field is “too saturated,” increases students’ stress levels, and activates their imposter syndrome. When they see a new paper that approaches their topic, they panic, terrified someone “beat them to the punch.” Instead, we need to teach them the value of replication findings, theory testing in new settings, and innovative methods, affirming their interests and the potential contributions they will have.
So if someone questions whether your findings are expected or obvious or predictable, remind them of the value of studies that replicate, test theories, and use innovative methods. More importantly, remind yourself of the most important thing: why YOU value the research you’re doing.