How to choose your next research project

Ask yourself these five questions to prioritize your ideas.

19 August 2020

Carsten Lund Pedersen

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Knowing which research projects to pursue can make or break an academic career. Choosing the right projects can lead to publishing in top journals and gaining tenure, while choosing the wrong projects can result in the misallocation of time and resources, which could jeopardize your career.

Unfortunately, little guidance on choosing projects is available to junior researchers.

To help with the task of prioritization, I’ve created a simple flowchart.

The chart draws upon my personal experience and principles like ‘the hedgehog concept’, which stresses that we need to prioritize our tasks in relation to factors such as personal passion and ability.

If you follow the logic of this flowchart, you will find out whether you should pursue a given project or drop it instead.

The five questions it poses are explained below.

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1. Do I have an idea?

The first – and most relevant – question is whether you have an idea for a research project. It might sound trivial, but there is a big difference between a fuzzy notion of a research direction, and a properly fleshed-out idea.

If you do have a specific idea, you should move on in the chart. If you don’t have one, you should drop the notion for now.

2. Do I find the idea interesting?

It is crucial that you find your idea interesting. As research is such a long and hard endeavour, it will be your intrinsic motivation that energizes you along the journey.

If you do find the idea interesting, you should proceed in the chart. If it doesn’t engage you, you should shelve it for now (you might find it interesting later).

3. Do others find the idea interesting?

If your peers find your idea interesting, you might have a potential audience for it. Discuss your idea with your peers to further develop it before moving on in the chart.

If your peers are lukewarm about your idea, you should use their feedback to come up with one that is more relevant to them and your field of research.

4. Can I make a contribution to the field?

It is unlikely that you will get an idea published in a respectable journal if it does not make a solid contribution to the field.

This has a dual meaning: First, your idea must on its own make a contribution. Second, it should be realistic that you also have the ability to follow through and deliver on that contribution.

If neither you nor the idea can make a contribution to the field, you should work on refining the idea and its execution to ensure its impact.

5. Do I have the time and energy for it?

You must have the time and energy to pursue the project. As the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, many researchers are feeling overwhelmed by the new tasks and deadlines creeping in. This makes it even more essential to prioritize your tasks effectively.

If you do have time and energy, you should go ahead and pursue the project. If you don’t have the capacity right now, you may consider finding collaborators who can help you with the project.

Coming up with ideas is relatively easy for most curious researchers – choosing the right ones to pursue is often the sticking point.

The flowchart above acts like a funnel, where you start with many ideas, but end up with a few key projects that are ready for you to pursue. By doing so, you minimize the potential for misallocating your time and energy.

And in case you were wondering: Yes, this article was one of the “survivors” of the flowchart.

Carsten Lund Pedersen is an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark.

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