Where do I get my research ideas?

This year I have been giving an awful lot of talks.  Along with these talks, I’ve been meeting with a lot of graduate grad students during my visit.  A  common question I get when I meet with a group of students (you know, the ones with free time) is how I get my research ideas.  This usually comes from students who are floundering without a dissertation topic.  I thought I’d write up my answer.

  1. First, I get ideas from my contrarian nature.  Perhaps it’s my math training, but I am always looking for a counter-example, I am always questioning statements taken to be true.  My own job market paper topic, in fact, was a reaction from a statement one of my professors had made in a second-year class that struck me as possibly not true and when I looked into it, I found very little research on the topic.  I figured out how to test it better than the one or two previous papers, and voila, an amazing paper.
  2. Another place to get ideas that haven’t been worked on over and over is to think about your own unique experiences.  This can be something as broad as thinking about your own female perspective on sexist things that your male-dominated field takes for granted (ex. all the new research coming out showing that women aren’t irrational, they’re just working under different constraints) or as specific as a public program that not many people know about but you know lots about because your grandfather was on it.  You have lots of unique things that you bring to your discipline.  Think about what they are.  Think about who you know.  Look at the broader world around you and question it.
  3. It is ok to start out feeling like you keep coming up with ideas that have already been done– when I started out, it seemed like when I started the lit review I’d find that the exact paper I wanted to write had been written 10 years ago.  But my next idea had been published 3 years ago.  And the one after that, maybe just out.  Eventually I started coming up with ideas that were working papers.  And then new papers.  You may also find yourself in the situation where you’re half done with a paper and it seems like you’ve just been scooped– but you haven’t been really– it is unlikely your paper is identical to this other one and if it is, you can still change things, pursue different directions, answer some things better, etc. to differentiate it.  You want to be working in a hot field because it means your question is important.  See if you can create conference panels with this other paper.
  4. It gets a lot easier once you’ve gotten immersed.  After you’ve started a project, you start realizing there are huge gaps in the literature– things you really need to know now in order to fully answer your question but that are themselves their own projects.  You’ll also come up with new questions that your project has provided you… if this is true, then why this other thing?
  5. If you don’t do a perfect job, that means future people will fill in the gaps in your literature later!  It’s kind of exciting seeing people do a better job than you did because they are taking your paper as a starting point.  You know, so long as they cite you.

Where do you get your ideas?  What advice would you give current graduate students looking for inspiration?

14 Responses to “Where do I get my research ideas?”

  1. Leah Says:

    This is such good advice but still so hard to see. As you say, you truly have to immerse yourself. I did not have the patience for it, but I am so glad other people do! I love to read new ideas and think about them.

    On a semi-related note, from your first two steps — one of my high school teachers always reminded us to challenge the assumption inherent in the question. So many students just want to rewrite the question as their answer. Good questions do not give away the answer; they ask you to consider, add in more info, and challenge. I find my students are good at questioning in-person authority but need more practice at questioning the authority on paper.

  2. bogart Says:

    I don’t pursue this in the way you do, but another point that occurs to me is that it may be useful to look at how other disciplines approach “your” discipline’s questions or topics and seeing what new perspectives/questions they might suggest to you. [Insert standard cautionary note about the perils of early-career interdisciplinarity about here.]

    Another tangential thought that will be standard procedure in some disciplines and unheard of in others, but that merits attention if your discipline falls between those endpoints — avoid collecting your own data if you can. Selecting a topic for which secondary data are available dramatically decreases the time investment required to complete your project (and likely gets you better data, as well). Doing theory rather than empirical work also avoids this (data collection) step, of course (but probably is something you either have chosen to do or not, not a writing strategy), as may simulation.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is also true. A lot of breakthroughs in economics are wholesale stolen from other fields.

      • First Gen American Says:

        This is SO true in engineering as well. I ran into a pal at a healthcare show and he was at the time working for Apple. I was like….what are you doing here? Oh yeah, innovation isn’t copying what your competitors are doing but taking ideas from one place and applying them in a new and different way.

  3. hypatia cade Says:

    Read the footnotes. Read the limitations sections. Can you do it better/differently?

  4. CG Says:

    I really like the advice to draw upon your own experience. I’m in a social scienc-y professional field and the idea for my dissertation (and many subsequent articles) were drawn from my relatively short time as a practitioner. It turned out that no one had seen certain aspects of the professional process and the roles of some of the actors in that process the way I had.

    The other thing I would say is to find people you’d like to work with and brainstorm something you could do together. I’m involved in a pretty exciting new research area for my field and it’s just because a friend and I found an intersection between her area of expertise and mine. Our article coming out this summer will be the first to address this topic in our field’s top journal.

    Since I just got tenure…this week…I’m going to be thinking about sources of renewal for research, especially since my field has very little funding available, so I appreciate these ideas.

  5. Fiona McQuarrie Says:

    I like the “contrarian nature” idea. I would add to that, just having a general curiosity is important too. Students floundering for a dissertation topic must have chosen their field of study for a reason. Why did they choose that field? What interests and doesn’t interest them about the subject? I think it’s important to encourage students’ personal responsibility and initiative in finding research topics, as part of helping them become researchers.

  6. MidA Says:

    Spin-off question: what if you are a non-academic with a potentially interesting research question on a somewhat hot topic? How do you determine whether the paper already exists without access to jstor (is google sufficient)? If it is as new and exciting as thought, do academics ever want to partner in such endeavors, and if so how does one find such a partner?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Go to your local library and ask what they have access to. Google scholar is better in some fields than others ( ditto jstor). Partnerships vary by discipline. They are most likely when you are able to offer data or equipment or money.

  7. Steph Says:

    Thank you for posting this! I’m graduating next year and starting to worry more about where to go next, so these are really helpful to think about

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