Starting from Scratch: Dr. Tonya Williams Bradford’s Lessons from a Career in Research

May 21, 2024 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Dr. Tonya Williams Bradford is an associate professor of marketing at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business. She’s cowritten dozens of research papers over the years and recently was asked to contribute a new chapter in the second edition of Qualitative Methods and Marketing. Her chapter, cowritten with Mary C. Gilly, Merage emerita faculty, is titled “From a Blank Piece of Paper: Starting a Research Project,” offers actionable advice for academics getting started with the research process.

Bradford says that pinpointing the focal area is one of the first parts of research. “The topic likely has many different parts,” she says. “You have to narrow it down into something that is discreet enough to study in a meaningful way.” She believes most people struggle to arrive at a specific topic, at times casting too broad or narrow of a scope as they craft their research inquiries.


Finding a Topic’s Unique Points of Interest

Bradford says many researchers have an initial idea about what they want to study, but once they go to the literature, they realize there are countless papers that have already been published on the same topic. But that does not mean all is lost.

“Finding the best way to approach the subject from an angle that no one has looked into in quite the same way is crucial,” she says. “People mistake the phenomena for the contribution. You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the contribution I’m trying to make?’”

For example, Bradford studies organ donation. Other people have studied organ donation in anthropology, sociology, psychology, or medicine. After reviewing the literature, a researcher may spot a perspective that hasn’t been fully explored.

“I’m working on a paper now where we noticed the experience of the organ donor themselves was missing—not so much from the clinical aspect, which is what is most often studied, but the socio-emotional aspects of that process,” she says. People need to think about the overall phenomenon and ask, what do we have yet to learn?


Collaborate or Go Solo?

Another challenge researchers often face is the question of whether to collaborate or work on the project alone. Bradford says that question is a very personal one.

“So much of our research now is really hard to do alone because the problems are so complex,” she says. “Sometimes the research methods or approaches you need to take are more expansive than what might be in one’s tool kit.”

Bradford says many academics start by exploring what types of research will be necessary to arrive at a meaningful result. The pragmatic approach of understanding what needs to be done helps to identify the skills that will be necessary. In turn, the researcher can evaluate whether they can handle it all, or if they need a collaborator.

In her own work, Bradford tends to take a different approach. When she enjoys working with another person, she’ll start by exploring the topics that they might tackle together.


Choose Research Partners for the Long Haul

Ultimately, Bradford explains, the decision to go solo or work with others must take stock of how the project will unfold over time. “These projects can take six to ten years,” she says. If she plans to spend that much time with someone, she wants to make certain she enjoys their company. Bradford says it’s not enough to have complementary skills. The relationship is paramount.

Choosing a research partner has its share of challenges, Bradford says. “People underestimate how much effort is involved in developing a research relationship. You have to understand what each individual’s skill sets are, what they’re good at, and how you complement each other. Once you’ve made that initial investment, it’s a sunk cost,” she says. “How can you leverage that investment? I’m all about finding people with whom I actually want to work because it’s a long haul.”


The Differences Between Context and Phenomena

This tension between context and phenomena is an important factor in crafting a strong research paper. “So often we see a phenomenon that’s happening in a lot of places, but what’s the specific context and the specific locale where that’s happening?” she asks.

“Every country has different laws that govern organ donation, but are donors around the world the same? People opt to offer their organs, but that doesn’t mean the experience of doing so is the same for everyone.”

Local laws, the hospital or insurance system, and legal systems shape part of that experience, Bradford says. “I could pick a specific hospital system, but the reality is there are not that many transplants that happen in a particular year, and they’re spread over dozens of facilities.” Therefore, a researcher may need to focus on one country to gather their data, which becomes the context, despite the global nature of the phenomenon, she says.


Map Your Process to Complete the Puzzle

The most important question to ask in research is: why does something happen? The second is, “What impact does the relationship have on other factors?” For Bradford, the first thing to do is take time to map the process. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the process is the answer, but the process is not the theory,” she says. “It’s not an explanation of ‘if-this-then-that.’ We need to ask why those things are in relationship with each other.”

Bradford says it’s extremely important for people to deeply understand their phenomena. “Then they can go to the literature and figure out what parts of this process we already understand in terms of the relationship between the different things we see and what parts still require some explanation.”

She believes that’s where the research becomes fun and interesting. “Research is one big puzzle. You’re trying to figure out what puzzle pieces you have and which puzzle pieces you need.” Then the question becomes this: “Which puzzle pieces are missing that you can fill in with your research?”


Learn to Ask the Right Questions

Once the researcher maps the process, the researcher moves on to explore why the process is happening. Figuring out how to answer that question is one of the core challenges of research. It may require the researcher to gather more data from a new source or find people who might have the answers to tough questions.

One of the biggest pitfalls researchers face is matching their data with the research question. “It’s easy to talk to whoever’s nearby,” Bradford says. “A lot of folks get criticized about their data because their research is based on student samples, so we need to ask how similar our college students are to the general population involved in this phenomena.”


Maintain Strong Ethical Standards

For academic researchers, one of the first steps is obtaining Institutional Review Board approval to conduct the research project. “It’s really important when we conduct research that the people who participate are fully aware of the benefits and concerns of doing so.”

She cites the Tuskegee Experiment as an example of how far things can go wrong. In that infamous study, which started in 1932, African American men were infected with syphilis without being consulted. The researchers wanted to see how the disease progressed without treatment. As a consequence, many subjects suffered severe health consequences, including death.

The Tuskegee Experiment and other shocking examples of unethical research led to the development of the rigorous protocols followed by the Institutional Review Board. All research protocols are required to be approved prior to initiating the research, she says.


Avoid Analysis Paralysis

Another common pitfall for researchers is the classic case of analysis paralysis. “There are thousands and thousands—even tens of thousands—of articles written about all kinds of things,” Bradford says. “You could get so deep in the weeds about what’s already been written that you forget that your study explains something different.” Perhaps the situation or environment has changed, and circumstances theorized in a former way are not as relevant now.

“That’s an opportunity to create something novel, so go do it. Don’t just sit and wait because the world needs our brain power.”