Choosing a research problem to work on is a tough decision to make, and the relevant advice is rather scarce.
So far I have found only a handful of reasonably looking tips:
- work on important problems (R. Hamming, You and Your Research)
- go for the messes, i.e., for the areas far from being crystal clear
(S. Weinberg, Scientist: Four golden lessons)
- look for an unoccupied niche that has potential (this and some other good tips can be found in the paper Picking a research problem — the critical decision which is primarily addressed to the researchers in biology and medicine but can be of interest to the other scientists too)
- keep several (if possible, not too closely related) problems of varying difficulty to work on, so that you can switch to another problem when you get stuck (for more on this see e.g. here)
- try to move beyond the subject of your Ph.D. thesis (if you have already defended one, indeed) or your postdoc (or your postdoctoral mentor, for that matter); more broadly, beyond your current area of research (see e.g. this post of Terence Tao). This has an extra benefit of reducing the risk of being scooped as discussed here.
- regularly attend the conferences and join (or run) a seminar and/or a journal club: the talks can be an important source of inspiration
- do something you will enjoy doing and what you feel you can do
- your work should rather open the way to new breakthroughs than close the whole subject down
The last three tips are somewhat of a common wisdom and can be found in a number of places; see e.g. the article Choosing a research topic by Richard Reis, which contains some further interesting thoughts on the subject.
- Uri Alon: How to choose a good scientific problem ; also note his recent article in Cell (via the 21st century scientist)
- Michael Nielsen: Principles of Effective Research and Extreme Thinking
- this post by Terence Tao
- these articles in the Science Careers (via I.K.)
- R.P. Feynman’s quote