If you are a researcher, then there is a near 100% chance that you have been told at least once to “focus, focus, focus your research!” However, it is difficult to figure out how to focus, especially when even the best people in the field seem to have such “unfocused” research agendas.
At a recent mentorship lunch, psychologist Mark Leary used a physical metaphor that helped to clarify to me how one can be topically diverse but theoretically focused.
Leary explained how he did research by holding out an open hand with his fingers extended. He explained that the core theoretical interests rested in his palm, but that he explored that idea through many different prongs (his finger). This is the “multi-pronged approach.”
This approach permits a researcher to investigate different substantive or psychological questions, but with a firm foundation in a topic they hold expertise in.
For a young researcher the multi-pronged approach permits controlled exploration. For instance, a person focused on self-control might be interested in construal level or motivated cognition. Instead of completely jumping ship to a different topic, the researcher can ask, “What do I know about self-control that might be interesting to look at in conjunction with construal level or motivated cognition?”.
Science is best when it is cumulative—when multiple people do multiple projects on the same idea. With few exceptions, researchers are also best when they are internally cumulative—personally doing multiple projects on the same idea.
In sum, the multi-pronged approach provides an example of “programmatic research” that is less linear, but is not disorganized. Linear “programmatic research” may take almost a decade to manifest, but the multi-pronged approach can take much less time, may work for better for a graduate student, and arguably is what many researchers in our field actually do.