What is academic research?

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.


I can’t turn water into wine, but these short blog posts are intended to help you to understand the field of theological studies and hone your technical skills in critical thinking, research and writing. This post introduces you to the basic idea of academic research, and subsequent posts will outline further elementary aspects of the research task.

What is research? Dictionary definitions suggest that it involves a careful and diligent search for information or knowledge. There are many kinds of research.

For example, I might type a street address into a phone app to check which is the fastest route from location A to B; I might peruse promotional material to determine what kind of car or brand of toothpaste to buy; I might search online, or seek the expert opinion of a doctor, to identify what illness best correlates with the symptoms I’m experiencing; or I might survey my friends for recommendations of what book or movie I should read/watch next.

Academic research takes this familiar activity to the next level. Isaac Felipe Azofeifa suggests that academic research is “a systematic search for adequate information to reach objective knowledge of a specific topic.” Vyhmeister and Robertson expand on this:[1]

    1. Systematic search. This requires effort. It does not just happen. A researcher must develop and use a clear method and a logical system. Research is not easy; it requires time, energy, thought, and effort.
    2. Adequate information. Research does not look for someone’s ideas about matters somehow related to the problem; it seeks precise answers to the specific question being asked. The information presented must be from authoritative sources, speak to the problem, and be duly documented.
    3. Objective knowledge. In order to reach objective knowledge, you must have prior knowledge of the topic. To this prior knowledge you will add facts, not suppositions or possibilities. Research is done with the head and not the heart. Research looks at facts, not conjectures or even possibilities, much less long-cherished pet ideas.
    4. Specific topic. It is impossible to do adequate research on a large topic. The research paper is not an encyclopedia. A specific, clearly delineated problem is the only one that can be solved.

Do you agree? Is there an aspect of the commentary above with which you strongly disagree? Which of the four aspects seem most natural, and which might present the greatest challenge?

If this is what academic research is, we can also list what it is not:[2]

    • a compilation of quotations;
    • rewriting other people’s words and ideas into a neat description;
    • presentation of one’s own unresearched opinions;
    • a defence or apology for one’s own convictions;
    • polemical argument intended to convince through rhetoric alone;
    • a sermon (your aim is not to move emotions or change lives, but to convince minds).

Moreover, academic research seeks to avoid poor study habits such as hurriedness, inaccuracy, and carelessness. It also seeks to avoid sloppy thinking such as arguments supported by logical fallacies, cognitive bias, cherished ideas, prejudices, and folk wisdom.

The basic purpose of academic research is to seek truth and new knowledge. This may be undertaken for its own sake, or to counter falsehood and ignorance, or to contribute to a cause such as constructive theology, spiritual growth, historical understanding, or social development.

As an undergraduate student, you may feel like a spectator at the academic game. But as your studies progress, you have increasing opportunities to become a genuine participant. A research degree further prepares you to be an active participant in an international academic community, and in a global community of scholars.

For those engaged in a research degree, such as an MTh or PhD, your experience of study will probably be more individual and isolated than a typical undergraduate experience. It may have been some time since you last accessed formal education. Your new experience will require adjustment.

A research degree requires a high degree of self-management, information literacy, analytical skills, and communication skills. It also gives you significant independence in your choice of topic, methodology, research strategy, and application of critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Your degree is just the start of this new dimension to life. It’s up to you to make the most of it. The skills you acquire now will last a lifetime.

This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


[1] Nancy Jean Vyhmeister & Terry Dwain Robertson, Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers for Students of Religion and Theology (3rd edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 1f.

[2] Vyhmeister & Robertson, Quality Research Papers, 5f.

Image source: The Economist

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