The great research question hunt

In his blog post from last February, Jari Saramäki discussed the importance of creativity in science. If we define creativity as the ability to come up with new ideas and to develop them further, science is all about creativity. Luckily, according to Jari, creativity is like ear for music or eye for design: it can be learned with sufficient training. In this post, I will concentrate on a specific aspect of scientific creativity: finding a research question.

Jari describes the birth of new research ideas as an evolutionary process. In the optimal case, it is indeed one. While one works on a research project, new ideas pop up, possibly as practical problems or minor observations that evolve to full research questions. As all evolutionary processes, the emergence of new research questions in this way is slow. For example, when I started my PhD, finding the final research question took me around two years of trial and error*.

*Those were fun two years, by the way! I strongly recommend any PhD student to give their project the time it needs to find its final shape.

But what if there simply isn’t time to wait for the research questions to evolve naturally? When the deadline of a funding proposal or an application for a PhD position is approaching, one needs a more active approach for finding the right question. Early autumn, for example, is a season of deadlines. Lately, I have been searching for research questions for two extensive funding proposals to be submitted in the coming September. Let’s have a look on my technique for the research question hunt.

Getting prepared. The chase for a research question starts with good preparation: reading, discussions, and taking notes. Try to follow the literature not only about but also around your current topic*. Listen to talks open-mindedly: for example, you are typically never banned from seminars at other departments than your own, if you just walk in. When meeting new people, ask what they’re doing and tell about your own work: often they happen to come up with a new viewpoint that can evolve to a research question.

* Finding time for reading is always difficult – so many things seem to be more urgent than reading something only weakly connected to one’s current work. I try to solve this by booking myself reading afternoons when all “more useful” work is forbidden.

Sometimes literature and discussions alone can result in a clearly formulated research question. However, if this doesn’t happen, there is no need to worry: in any case, the gathered information forms the basis for the later research question hunt. To not loose this basis, make notes whenever you face an interesting idea. Some researchers even carry with them small notebooks for this purpose only!

During my PhD defense, my opponent Javier Buldú brought up several new perspectives on my work. So, I started my post-defense notebook with a page titled “Paper ideas from the opponent”. Some of these ideas are materializing to a research project right now!

Pen and empty paper. The most surprising part of the research question hunt is that often one already knows the question. It’s all about bringing it to light! I typically start this with a pen and an empty paper – and by switching off my computer. This phase will take some time, so I aim to reserve for it a couple of hours without interruptions. For me, this is the most important phase of the research question hunt, and I definitely find it worth of investing some time.

Armed with the pen and paper, write down everything you find interesting. For me, the first thoughts typically strongly relate to what I’m working on right now. After writing these down, more distant – sometimes even random – ideas start to appear. At this stage, it is important to be as uncritical as possible. This is not the time for evaluating if the ideas make sense – just write down everything that crosses your mind! In the best case, you end up finding a good bunch of things that make you excited; this is good not only for your research question hunt but also for your motivation in general.

Besides of actual research ideas, one may end up writing down all sorts of different things. Depending on the purpose of your research question hunt, it may be a good idea to list transferable skills – project management, scientific communication, teaching, etc. – you’d like to learn. My notes often contain also larger philosophical questions; last time, I wrote several times WHAT IS THE TRUTH? Well, I don’t consider that as a bad question to think about every now and then.. Avoid actively looking for challenges and limitations but if you still come across with them, write them down as well. Even better is, of course, if you already can think of useful references or people that could help you to overcome these issues.

Make the connections between ideas visible. If one thought lead you to another one, place them close to each other; if there seem to be a connection between two thoughts that are placed far away from each other, connect them with an arrow. Never mind if your paper looks a bit messy at this point!

A part of the write-down phase of my latest research question hunt. As you probably will never show this paper to anybody (unless, of course, you decide to write a blog post about it), don’t worry if it looks messy. Also, use the language that feels the most natural; people often think most fluently in their native language, but sometimes mixing up languages is the right way to go.

Little by little, the research question should start emerging. Maybe you end up asking the same question again and again from slightly different viewpoints? Or possibly a line of connected thoughts and subquestions appear, giving you the first draft of your research plan?

When you don’t anymore have new ideas in your mind, have a look at your earlier notes. If they mention something that feels important but is still missing, add it. In my opinion, it is important to check your notes only at the end of the write down phase. Otherwise, the notes may end up chaining your creativity.

Writing up. At this stage, you hopefully have a paper full of ideas and the first, possibly weak, grip of the research question. Next, it’s time to write it up. While doing this, try to give things a logical structure: What is the main question? What should be done first to address it? Which skills and facilities are needed? Do you already have an idea about the expected outcomes? Try to formulate the written-up version of your ideas so that you can share it with others.

Ready to write up? My previous research question hunt led me to repeatedly ask “What is the truth?”.

However, while looking for the structure, try not to eliminate things. If some of the ideas you wrote down don’t seem to fit in the structure, include them as a separate list in the end of your write-up document. You may not need them in this project, but it’s better to keep them safe for possible later use.

Asking for feedback. After writing up your ideas, discuss them with others. Ask for feedback: what is particularly interesting, are there perspectives you may have missed? If others find something unclear, you probably need to work on clarifying it, no matter how clear it appears to you.

Depending on your career state, the obvious person to discuss with is your supervisor or colleague – and if you already have in mind somebody you’d like to collaborate with on your ideas, go ahead and ask them. However, discussing with somebody from outside of your own field – or even from outside of the academia, a fried or a family member for instance – can be surprisingly useful. Often people that are not familiar with the usual research lines of your field can help you to see things from a different angle. Maybe there is space for an interdisciplinary collaboration?

Remember that if you’re happy to receive help and feedback from others, you should also be ready to help them. In addition to being considered a good person, commenting the research ideas of others can come with other advantages as well. It is almost always cool to listen people talking about things they are enthusiastic about, no matter if these things relate to your own work. A good discussion can bring up ideas for your own research as well – and if you comment on, for example, the PhD plan of somebody often enough, you may find yourself as one of the co-authors (as happened to me, my wife Milja Heikkinen, and the stars of mitigation; if I remember correctly, a bottle of wine was also involved).

Space for changes. At this point, your hunt should have resulted in a new, shiny, and pretty well-defined research question. Nice catch, congratulations! Next, you probably want to write it up in the form of a grant proposal or a job application – or, if you’re lucky enough, you can just start working on it. Either way, be flexible and leave some space for changes.

If writing the proposal feels exceptionally difficult, you may need to still modify your question and the related plan. There may be some parts that don’t fit in the logical flow of your proposal. Your question may be correct but too big for the project timeline – you probably notice this if you need to include a tentative schedule in your proposal.

Finally, only actually starting the project will show what happens to the research question in the real world. Possibly some parts of it will turn out to be more challenging than expected, taking more time and transforming to independent projects. Maybe some of the obtained results will be exceptionally interesting. Then, it may be the right moment to change the original plan and leave space for the natural evolution of new research questions.


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