This very interesting and very controversial issue is discussed here, here and here. The discussion was triggered by this post at the YFS blog on the all not-too-nice kinds of people one encounters in science and on losing one’s illusions down the road into the academe (see also here for a related post at the RS blog); for a kind of alternative point of view see here.
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
Another useful tip from the Lifelong Scholar’s blog: whenever you take a break, make you sure you have a specific task to do when you get back to work.
Update: there are many more resources on the academic productivity. To list a few,
I have just found some great advice on how to boost your citation count, i.e., get more citations for your publications (which may, as you well know, increase your visibility in the science world and your chances of getting tenure) . An interesting discussion of the so-called Matthew effect in science (to start, see the classical papers by Robert K. Merton here, here, and here) and its influence on the citation patterns can be found here.
As for the general advice on writing research papers, see excellent writing tips from the blog of Terence Tao.
Update 2: making your work available online (e.g. at the arXiv; see this post of Terence Tao for further details) can significantly increase its chances to be cited (but be careful with the copyright issues when making available the work you have already published).
Update 3: Also, quite obviously, publishing your paper in a high-impact journal may increase its chances of getting cited. But submitting your papers to the journals perceived as prestigious has plenty of caveats — see e.g. this post by Terence Tao and this post by Massimo.
Update 4: see this post about the citation trading at ectropy.info