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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?