Finding a Research Topic

My first research topic was “given” to me at the beginning of last summer. I was helping a professor with his research on California K-12 spending. This particular research project was on understanding how rational K-12 schools are. Rational was defined as not spending all of your funding in one year. For example, if schools expect X dollars and they end up receiving Y, where X is less than Y, do they only spend X dollars and save the difference. Basically, we want to know if K-12 schools save for a rainy day. My task in the project was to get a better understanding of the history of K-12 spending, history of state spending, and also to gather data on K-12 funding. We were focusing on the last 30 years from 1980 to present, and having a good understanding of history can help make the numbers make sense. I was taught that research in its basic form tells a story, and all the math/statistics are tools we use to tell that story. At first, I felt like I was playing catch up. I knew little to nothing about California’s budget or different policies/ laws that affect its budgets. However, the more I read the more I realized some very interesting themes. One was that K-12 spending was fairly steady unlike other departments, and that California had a lot of budget deficits this just means that the state was spending more than its income. Over fifty percent of the time from 1980 to 2012 California had budget deficits. While my main concern was on K-12 spending this new bit of information was very interesting.

I was quickly learning that California’s budget had a lot of moving parts, surprising I know, its not like California has the largest economy of any state. We gave weekly reports on our findings and as the summer came to close I began to focus more on this idea of budget deficits. After, a couple of failed attempts to understand the deficit problem with regressions, we decided that it was best to look at the big picture. One useful tool used to look at the big picture is a chart. I created a lot charts from total spending, to growth rates, to spending as a fraction of total spending. From these charts came more insights and more questions, like why is that Corrections/prisons spending does not appear to be affected by recessions, and why does Higher education spending appear to mirror correction spending? These are questions I am still trying to answer but the interesting thing is that these questions are ones that I came up with. This new research question is my question. My professor says that this is what good research does. We start with one topic and as we begin to understand that topic we usually find that it leads us to other questions. New research questions are sometimes found when you’re not even looking.