How to Choose a Research Topic

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.

See also:

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12 Responses to How to Choose a Research Topic

  1. msphd says:

    Yes, this is great in theory.

    In practice, it is a recipe for never getting a faculty position.

  2. Mark says:

    Hamming’s and Weinberg’s advices are great and should be thoroughly followed by everybody who (like the authors) has never had a problem of landing a faculty position. For other, normal, scientists — beware…

  3. For beginning researchers (I’m thinking undergrads and new grad students here), and perhaps dovetailing with the idea of “how much passion do you need,” an overlooked aspect of choosing a research topic is knowing whether you are motivated more by what excites you (the “this is so cool!” reaction) or what angers you (the “this is so wrong!” reaction). My guesstimate is that about 75% of my students follow the first — they are willing to invest considerable energy in those areas of research they are most excited by. The last 25% (I am in this group:-)) are more invested in addressing what they see as wrong or wrong-headed. When done badly, the second approach results only in criticism. When done well, it results in plausible alternatives. I have no idea which path better leads to tenure as I went the (U.S. system) lecturer route.

  4. Sam says:

    I totally agree, my little cousin wanted to start researching for a project, didn’t know what. This was perfect, and within 10 minutes she knew what she was going to do

  5. Too cool! Glad to know.

  6. Bernard O. Sanni says:

    This is the best guideline for upcoming researchers pls keep it up we need it

  7. Azizul islam says:

    New and innovative sometime mad like idea can come when the supervisor should not interfere for the idea bcoz newness comes in this way but in some university og Bangladesh the supervisors think that research is to ail the students to increase their tolerance level. They think that research means something very difficult I agree with some scientific research but literature or academic research for business students may not be the same…..i am a scapegoat of such an experience.

  8. Helani Wijayarathna says:

    Selecting a res.topic is a slightly difficult for a beginner.sometimes we consider broader topics, that won’t ends.As a undergraduate in nursing field of Sri lanka,I think there should be more on doing researches in the field of nursing among third world countries by itself.On the other hand, this idea is good enough for a research topic !!!

  9. Illeltytync says:

    I joined this forum jus to reply to this thread, and I would like to say thank you for making it. It might not make sense to you, but it does to me, and I felt I needed to leave a comment.

  10. bibek says:

    nice one

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