Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Ten suggestions for selecting a research topic

Paul P. Gardner1 and Venkateswarlu Pulakanam2

1. Biomolecular Interactions Centre and School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
2. College of Business and Law, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Selecting a research project is one of the most important decisions researchers at any stage of their career can make [1][2][3]. This is of particular importance for early-career academics. An early selection of the wrong project can have a negative impact on later career options. We believe it is very important to invest time mulling over which of the infinitude of projects we can investigate. In the following we present a number of ideas that will mitigate the risk of failure before embarking on a project. We target our suggestions for younger scientists, however, more experienced researchers may also benefit from these ideas. We hope that this will further your career goals, rather than sap your will to live.
The project management literature contains a number of useful tools for identifying good projects. Tools like SMART criteria [4] for identifying sensible objectives and SWOT analyses [5] for selecting good projects are handy additions to include in your strategic approach to research.
We have identified 10 key tools that we believe are of particular benefit to early-career scientists.

1. What are your research and career objectives and goals? Ask yourself, where you want to be five or ten years from now? E.g. Marketing, Consultancy, Government, Education, Research, … Try to be pragmatic and strategic about your goals. Then identify institutions, supervisors, collaborators and projects that are a good fit between your abilities and goals.
2. Brainstorm to find ideas, questions and hypotheses. Identify where your ideas come from e.g. literature, conferences, seminars, discussions with colleagues, at the gym, in the shower or on a mountainside. Use these areas and activities wisely to gain a good mix of exciting and realistic research questions. There is some wonderful research being performed on the origins of good ideas that is worth exploring e.g. [6].
3. Is it a worthwhile research project? Is it the ‘right research’? Will it lead to other research? Is this of interest to you? Are you competent or will you need further training? Is someone you can collaborate with competent? Is it SMART [4]?
4. Undertake a preliminary assessment of your research topic. Read general background information. Is this a novel area or merely a minor extension of existing research? If possible, run a preliminary analysis. Is the problem solvable? Try to work in an agile fashion [7]. Successful research groups don’t necessarily have better ideas, they test more ideas in a shorter amount of time. Quickly test hypotheses on small (public) datasets. If there is no support for your idea then it is probably not worth pursuing (except as an under-published negative result). If there is support, then develop more stringent tests and independent datasets. Take any opportunities to discuss your project with your peers, collaborators, supervisors. Act on their feedback and criticisms.
5. Narrow your topic to a manageable size. Can you define your topic as a focused research question? What are the essential elements that require testing? What are the non-essential or nice-to-have elements?
6. Be open, flexible and opportunistic. You may need to modify your project during the research process. Science is a non-linear process. We endeavour to circle around a hypothesis, testing from multiple angles and perspectives. Try to collaborate as much as possible. We all have different talents and perspectives. By collaborating we can test more and identify solutions faster. Take the opportunity to talk over ideas with your colleagues. We find that giving seminars presenting preliminary results can be particularly helpful. This forces you to collate and present your results, which the audience can give you valuable pre-submission feedback on.
7. Research and read more about your topic. Most PhD programs require a detailed literature review. The literature review process is an invaluable skill. It allows you to read widely and deeply, increasing your familiarity with your chosen subject area. This time will help you formulate a research question and strategy as well as hone your writing and presentation skills [8].
8. Formulate a thesis statement. What will the title of your thesis be? Can you write a short abstract about it? Is this a well-defined thesis statement? This will help define the boundaries of your project and focus your attention on the important areas.
9. Keep a positive attitude. In research you should hope for the best, but plan for the worst. It is very rare that a research project is completely trouble-free. Try to run a risk analysis. Endeavor to be optimistic and enthusiastic about your work. If you aren’t then it is unlikely that your peers and collaborators will be.
10. Keep a portfolio of project ideas. You never know when you will need a new research project. A new student joins your group or you need to write a research grant. A portfolio will provide a helpful reminder of those brilliant 3 am ideas. If possible try to annotate your projects as either low-risk and a small-contributions to current knowledge (a.k.a. “oysters” or “bread and butter”) or as high-risk and the potential to be major-contributions to your field (a.k.a. “pearls” or “jam and cream”). Allocate your research-time wisely. Something like an 80-85% time allotment for low-risk projects and 15-20% for high-risk projects will mitigate your risks of failure. Regularly consult colleagues with “black hat” or “referee three” skills and present your work to them. Let them expose the most significant flaws in your work and respond as best you can.


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