Deciding on what research project to pursue can be a daunting one. Most researchers, at some point or another, will need to be able carve their own research area and pursue something that is of interest to them, as opposed to something that was chosen for them.
For many, this occurs after the PhD, for some it occurs prior to it. Regardless, if you are in a position where you are able to undertake your own research project, there are a number of things you need to consider.
Ask yourself: where can I contribute the most?
This is different than asking, what have I researched/studied the most? It is quite possible that the area that you may contribute the most, is a subset of a different topic than the one that you’ve been studying for all these years. You have to be open to exploring different areas, preferably areas that are tangential to things you already know something about. Of course, it is also possible to venture into a completely new area, that might sound exciting (or scary) but it could be the reset that you need in your academic journey.
Make the most of research conferences
For many, research conferences, particularly if they are hosted in an exotic place, are perceived as get-aways, mini vacations where you can sit through a few dull presentation, give your own dull presentation and then explore the new place that you’re visiting after conference hours. Instead of looking at conference proceedings as a chore, why not identify key presentations that sound interesting to you from the conference program and try to see if you can’t find some inspiration for a new area to pursue?
If you are currently not set to attend a conference, search for conferences in your area, look at the conference proceedings from previous years, grab a cup of tea and find yourself a nice place to sit and start reading! You’re not reading with the intent of finding something to cite, you are reading through titles to find something that sparks your interest, something that you yourself might want to pursue.
Take walks – no, really do it!
There’s a bunch of research that shows that taking walks in nature is conducive to your creative process. It helps you take a mental break, allows your brain to recharge and see things from a different perspective. Don’t be fooled by thinking it’s a waste of time and that you’re too busy to meander about in some forest. Instead, make it part of the research process. It’s the part where you formulate ideas in your head and where you get recharged in order to do the heavy lifting later on.
Follow the money?
Of course, the most obvious course of action to find a new research project is to follow the trail of funding. This is as old as research itself, and as much as it is a proven way of finding a new research project, make sure the topic is of interest to YOU. After all, you are the one who is supposed to spend many hours studying this area, the least that you can do is make sure that it is something that you can tolerate, if not something that you can actively enjoy. The Chinese have a saying, attributed to Confucius, that the one who works with something that he enjoys, will never work a day in his life.