So, how do I come up with a good research idea for my thesis/dissertation?

This is one of the most common questions we hear when working with graduate students. Typically around 1 year into a graduate program, budding academics realize that in the very near future, he or she will need to come up with something–some research idea–capable of sustaining them through a 50-100 page thesis or a 100-300 page dissertation. An important question, to say the least.

Many of us hoped for a strictly linear, fill-in-the-blank process where one can simply answer a series of questions through a five minute survey, click submit, and out pops an award-winning research idea. But this just simply isn’t the case.

The best research ideas begin as small seeds, slowly growing tiny kernels that peek through our mental soils at the weirdest moments when the balance of water, minerals, and love are in the correct ratios.

If we do nothing, the seed withers and is gone evermore. It resides in the sad black pit of ideas forgotten.

For me, the best research ideas came seemingly at random

I’d be out for a walk or chatting with a student or simply sipping coffee and BAM, a delicate research seed would appear in my consciousness.

Sometimes the idea seeds were extremely general; other times, strangely specific (like a full research plan complete with a question, sampling strategy, methodology, limitations, potential conclusions, and interested journals).

Sometimes, they’d just seem silly. But it didn’t matter. I’d capture that little seed and hold it.

The Process of Capturing Research Seeds

You’re out for a walk, taking a break between classes, and for whatever reason, the bird’s song calls down your muse and you get an idea for a bit of research.

No matter how small, insignificant, or silly, stop and capture your idea into a system you trust.

In The Grad Academy, I show you how I use my favorite productivity app Wunderlist to maintain a task/project mindset. Research seeds are no different.

Immediately, once the research seed reveals itself, I invoke Wunderlist with my keyboard short cut (or pull up my phone) and use the quick capture to add it to a specific “Research Idea” project list. If you prefer a simple text list, use that. Just be sure to have some system you trust.

Once captured, I then continue my walk. The seed has been saved. It may be forgotten completely, or it may be the best damn idea I’ve ever had. I don’t know at that moment, and perhaps I don’t even care. What I DO care about is that the idea is now with me.

The Benefit of the Capturing Research Seeds

As of this writing, I have 97 Research Ideas captured in a chronological list, spanning political science, educational and literacy research, and more.

I peruse this list at random intervals, namely for a chuckle, as I can see how I’ve grown as a researcher over the years. The first few ideas in the list are somewhat silly; many suffer from me just not having enough background knowledge at the time to realize they were too general.

But about 3/4 down through the list I see this tiny seed that ultimately produced my dissertation, The Grad Academy, and Jayme and I helping countless graduate students across the world. That was one seed, one of 97.

So what are the benefits?

  • If and when you find yourself needing an idea to explore, all you need to do is peruse your list and pick one. I rarely feel any pressure of “where do I go from here?”
  • Capturing Research Seeds gives you a running log of your academic growth.
  • You never lose an idea. By having a quick capture system, you can easily save that research idea without disrupting your flow.
  • Perhaps most importantly, getting into the habit of capturing research seeds ensures that you are thinking like an academic. Once you adopt this strategy, you’ll be surprised how many research ideas come to the forefront. When they do, capture.

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