A Problem-Solving Workshop can take many forms. At Northwestern we run 90-minute workshops (see schedule to the right) where two students present per session. Every year we also hold a one-day dissertation development workshop for students from around the country, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Here’s some basic advice that holds for all formats, gleaned from years of conducting such workshops:

1) Projects should be early stage, and workshops should be brainstorming sessions. The idea is to think with the author to help them craft a developing piece of scholarship. The idea is not, as with most other presentation venues, to defend a piece of research that has already been completed. If a research design is fatally flawed, it’s much better to be told that at the beginning of the project rather than at the end.

2) 10% Presentation, 90% Discussion. At the Northwestern problem solving workshop presenters write only two single spaced pages. At the NSF-funded Dissertation Development Workshops we give them 10 single spaced pages but are very strict about the limit. We think concision forces clarity, and makes attendees more likely to read carefully. A great workshop looks like an open group discussion: where attendees do most of the talking and the presenter does most of the listening.

To begin discussion, the presenter could introduce their project by answering these two questions:

1) “What is the problem you are trying to solve?”

2) “What is non-negotiable for you?”

This latter question helps focus the conversation—if, for example, using an ethnographic method is non-negotiable for the presenter, attendees shouldn’t waste time hashing out all the problems with ethnographic methods. (Question courtesy of Erik Schneiderhan, one of the NSF facilitators).

Beyond that, we think the presenter should say as little as possible. Attendees can consider the following points as they think through the project:

The Problem: Does this project help solve the problem? Are there ways it could be revised to better help solve the problem? Are there interesting initiatives for this problem, such as activist organizations, that the presenter should know about? Are there recent articles in the media about the problem that seem relevant?

Sociological Theory: Does this seem publishable in peer-reviewed sociology journals? Could it be revised in ways that would make it more likely to get published? Is there scholarship the presenter needs to read or scholars the presenter could get in touch with? How might the presenter reframe the problem as “a case” of something?

If you are the presenter and you don’t know what to write in your memo, here are the prompts we use at the Northwestern workshop (Courtesy of Josh Basseches):

  1. You might start with a brief background section to situate your topic or "problem" of interest empirically and/or theoretically.

  2. You might include a research question if you have identified it, but it is perfectly alright if you are not there yet.

  3. You might want to address any or all of the following questions: a) What is the problem your research tries to solve? b) What is your current understanding of what causes this problem? c) What would be sociological about trying to analyze this problem? d) What would be the research agenda for doing so?

  4. You might briefly mention any challenges in the research process where you feel “stuck” so the group can think ahead of time hopefully help you move forward.