Trying to come up with NSF proposal

Oct 24 2011 Published by under Careers

The title of this port is actually a search phrase someone used to find my blog last week. I'm not sure what the searcher was looking for - ideas on how to come up with research ideas? - but it did get me thinking. How do people come up with research ideas?

First, what I mean by "research idea". For this post I mean some question or problem of interest that can be formulated as a research plan and submitted to a grant-making agency. Obviously different people with have their own permutations on this, but let's stick to that definition for this particular post.

I don't know how others do it, but can describe how it works for me. I suspect others operate in similar manners.

Basically the process of generating research ideas is organic. It all comes down to reading, listening, and asking lots and lot of questions. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ad nauseum.

The reading part should be obvious. All researchers should be constantly reading the literature. And hopefully more than just what is being published in their own particular sub-sub-sub-fields. Don't feel like you have time to read all the literature you "should" be reading? Make time. Set aside time just for reading. Even if you have ample funding and aren't looking to submit a new proposal anytime soon.* Read. Then read some more. Think about what important questions are currently unanswered. How would you go about answering them?

Go to meetings. Seminars/talks on your campus. And nearby campuses if you can. Listen to what the speakers are saying. Talk to them afterwards. And ask lots of questions. Talk to colleagues in your department about science. Go to journal clubs. Ask lots of questions. Present at journal clubs. Volunteer to read and critique colleague's grant proposals. Ask lots of questions. I'm not saying steal other people's ideas. That's an absolute no-no. Don't even think about it. What I find though, is that the more I immerse myself in a diverse range of science, the more ideas I have about my own. Gotta get that brain ticking over. I often have ideas regarding my own research while listening to presentations that have nothing to do with my own sub-sub-sub-field.

Ideas for new research questions/proposals just seem to grow out of the above.

And if you do all that and still can't seem to come up with an original idea of your own, maybe, just maybe, you should rethink your career aspirations...

One last thing about coming up with ideas for research. Don't limit yourself.

Don't dismiss ideas/directions because you feel you don't have quite the right set of methodologies. Collaborators can make up for those kinds of deficiencies. Or you could even pick up new techniques. I do constantly. Or more correctly, my lab personnel do. If your lab is limited to a particular set of techniques and is not constantly evolving, you're screwed.**

Don't limit yourself to doing what you've done in the past. Sure, there's a big advantage, for example, starting a TT position with a research project that leads directly out of your postdoc training. You can be up and running far more quickly than if you're trying to get something going from scratch. And generally it's easier to get funding for working on something that you have a track record in. But just doing more of the same ad infinitum is boring, bad for your research program and bad for science.

Be adventurous and keep your research evolving.

* Even if you think you have "ample" funding, you should still be looking to submit new proposals on a regular basis. Complacency will kill your research program. Trust me - I almost let that happen and it's very, very hard to dig yourself out of that hole.

** Obviously one can have a main technique/approach in which you are an expert etc., but that shouldn't be all you can do. And you should be prepared to tackle projects that don't require that technique if that's where the research is leading.

10 responses so far

  • namnezia says:

    Good advice! I think the key is not get bored with your research topic, if you do, your proposals and your science will suffer.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I don't think that is quite right Namnezia. I assume many people stagnate precisely because they are far too interested in a research topic/area that the general field has moved beyond. or perhaps decided in hive-mind wisdom that the majority of the ore has already been mined.

    getting bored with your own work is not good, of course, but it might lead you to think harder about why you are bored and stimulate you to look for new directions.

    It is scary, of course, for mid career folks to turn their back on "what brung them" and to move into new areas. This is why good ass-kickings by peers (such as Odyssey refers to in his linked post) is often needed. Sometimes this ass-kicking is delivered by study sections...that's the painful way. Better to hear it in the hallway at a conference.

  • Fucke all thatte shitte. I just snatch the ideas from the real scientists in my labbe doing real science.

  • Yael says:

    Ha ha and I thought it was us postdocs absorbing ideas by watching our PIs turning data into papers and grants...

  • Ola says:

    I'm currently attempting to come up with a mock grant proposal for my class, and I'm glad (having read your post) that my first instinct - to read, read, read - was the right one. Sadly, it's a little more difficult when you're taken completely out of your element and told that your proposal can't have anything to do with the area you're researching in for your thesis!