A major milestone in my department is the submission and defense of a Third Year Paper. All graduate students must submit a publication-quality article on the first day of their third year, get feedback from two advisors, revise and resubmit the manuscript, and present it in front of the department. I am less than two weeks away from completing the process, and throughout, nothing—not cleaning or analyzing the data, doing the reading, writing draft after draft, or getting feedback—was as difficult as coming up with the initial research idea.
I believe that given enough time and effort, you can learn any statistical method, write any number of pages, or master any programming language. Yet, even with infinite time, there is no guarantee you will come up with a great research idea. This fact is frightening, and it scares even the most creative and inventive people. The comedy writer Tom Koch once recalled that:
“People would say I must have had such a great life [writing comedy]…people who were engineers, doctors, insurance salesmen or whatever. But it was the kind of work where every morning I would wake up and think, ‘My God, I wonder if I can do it again today.’ There is no way you prepare to do it, or even know how you do it.”
Because coming up with creative and novel ideas is so difficult, and because there is no step-by-step formula that can lead you to them, if you are able to excel at this aspect of the research process, you will have a neigh-unbeatable competitive advantage throughout your academic career.
So how do you come up with great research ideas? I don’t quite know. That is why I titled this post “How to Have More Research Ideas” and not “How to Have Great Research Ideas.” But that difference gives away the game.
Think of it as a long process, not a single act
American culture romanticizes the idea of the lone, tortured genius who, in a single flash of inspiration, discovers a world-changing idea. Think Newton and the apple. Or Benjamin Franklin and the kite. Or Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. But to paraphrase the author Steven Johnson, the great irony of this “genius” theory of innovation is that—aside from being inaccurate—it is often associated with the lightbulb. Yet, the lightbulb—rather than being invented in a flash of insight—was the product of 40 years of work by many different scientists and, apocryphally, with much trial and error by Edison himself.
While some great ideas surely do come about through a “spark of genius,” they are rare. Coming up with a great idea is much more about simply having a lot of ideas, and doing a lot of trial-and-error until you find a good one, rather than waiting around to have the good one.1
So if the answer is quantity over quality, the question becomes not—how do you have a good idea—but how do you have a lot of ideas?
Read the news, not academic articles
Some early-career graduate students think that ideas can be found in the conclusions of academic articles where the authors suggest next steps in the research agenda. But this is a trap. With credit to Hal Varian—if an idea is in the conclusion, that means one of two things: either the authors are setting themselves up to publish an article investigating that question (and they are way ahead of you), or they couldn’t figure out how to answer the question (which means it’s very hard). Also, academic publications take a long time to go from idea to print. By the time you’re reading the article, the idea is two-ish years old. The world has changed and moved on.2
Because the world—and thus, what’s trending—is constantly changing, keep up with current events in your neck of the woods. I study political science, specifically the presidency and Congress, so I subscribe to newsletters and follow folks on Twitter who talk about those topics. I have had several paper ideas (many of which I did not pursue) just by following the conversation and looking for things that I found interesting or puzzling.
And I don’t think I’m cheating here just because I study politics. If you study history, it certainly seems like current events have elevated the importance of studying Reconstruction and the Civil War. If you study chemistry or biology, mRNA vaccines and viruses seem important.
The magic of the Internet means that you can easily find knowledgeable and thoughtful people writing and talking about these topics. Following those conversations is not a waste of time nor is it procrastination—it’s research.
Create a system for saving ideas
How many times, lying in bed, have I told myself it wasn’t worth getting my phone to write down an idea because it was a good one and, surely, I’d remember it in the morning?
More than once. And that’s too many.
It’s not enough to have an idea—because ideas are easy to forget. As David Allen, the famed author of Getting Things Done wrote:
“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
When you have an idea—no matter how big or small, good or bad—write it down and save it someplace where you can find it later. I generally use 3x5 index cards, which I store in a cataloged box. But any system will do.
Also, one more thing (I was going to put this in the footnotes but it seemed important enough to awkwardly place here in the middle of the article). So: “bad idea” is sort of a loaded term. Very few ideas—and by very few, I mean basically zero—are actually “bad” in the sense that you should feel bad for having them or for writing them down. When I say “bad,” what I really mean is that the idea could be outdated, already published, overdone, too late to a trend, very difficult to test effectively, too narrow, too broad, etc. Many of these issues can be overcome with some extra thought and effort. That’s why it’s worth writing down every potential idea and thinking about it further.
Get a lot of feedback
When you’re first starting out, it can be hard to judge what ideas will make for good research projects. The easiest way to find out is to talk to someone who does—your advisor.
Once you have a few ideas in the hopper, write a paragraph about each one and ask your advisor for feedback. They will be able to tell you what is worth pursuing, what isn’t, and how to close the gap between the two. And while it can be hard, try not to worry about what they will think of you or the ideas. Any advisor worth having will welcome the opportunity to provide feedback and the chance to help you grow—without any judgment whatsoever.
Having a great idea is hard. Having a lot of ideas—regardless of quality—is a bit easier. By focusing on the latter, and building a process around it, you will get better.
I think Noubar Afeyan (a co-founder of Moderna) said this well in an interview on the Conversations with Tyler podcast:
“…being systematic is an advantage, in and of itself, in my view. I know that that doesn’t make me popular with people who want to believe that exceptional things are, by their nature, unpredictable and rare and unreproducible. I happen not to believe that. I think that many things we deem exceptional are illusions because we haven’t actually gotten around to creating a systematic way to produce the conditions to have them happen.”
By focusing on the process rather than the lightbulb moment, you’ll have more ideas, more great ideas, and, over time, a keener sense for what is worth pursuing and what isn’t.