Advice from the archives: how to choose a research project

My heavy teaching load and the upcoming end of the term mean that I’m short of time to write posts at the moment. So I thought I’d highlight a couple of posts from our archives that I quite like, and that I think will be useful to many readers (particularly students).

Knowing how to motivate your work–how to explain to others why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why anyone else should care–is a very important skill, and also a very difficult one to learn. It’s often mistaken for mere marketing. It’s not. To help readers learn this skill, a while back I did a pair of posts on good and bad reasons for choosing a research project. The former is one of my most enduringly-popular posts. And while the latter gets many fewer views, I think it’s equally good and equally important. The two posts work best as a pair, since good and bad reasons for choosing a research project aren’t mutually exclusive (a point I probably should’ve made in the original posts, but didn’t).

To whet your appetite, here’s a sample good reason for choosing a research project:

Explain a pattern. Take as your starting point some pattern in nature, the stronger, more general, or more striking, the better. Develop and/or test one or more explanations for it. The pattern gives others a good reason to care about your work. A pattern is a signal. It’s a sign that there’s something other than “noise” going on. Setting out to figure out what that something is is a good starting point for a project. One hazard with this type of project: if there are already a whole bunch of non-mutually-exclusive explanations for the pattern, adding one more to the list isn’t really very interesting or useful, especially not if it’s also difficult to test those explanations. This is why “explain the latitudinal species richness gradient” probably isn’t a good project idea.

And here’s a sample bad reason:

Not much is known about X. Which means you’ll probably struggle to learn much about it. We learn new things by building on what we already know. Plus, there’s an infinity of things we don’t know much about. Why, out of all those things, do you want to know more about X?

One thought on “Advice from the archives: how to choose a research project

  1. Interesting that so far today people are reading my old post on good reasons for choosing a research project more than twice as often as my old post on bad reasons. Clearly readers prefer advice on what to do over advice on what not to do!🙂 Which I think is a little unfortunate because I see the two posts as complementary. It’s quite possible for someone to choose a research project for a good reason, and also for a bad reason. Just trying to follow my advice on what to do won’t necessarily help you avoid what not to do.

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