How to choose a research question
Choosing a research question is clearly the first and most basic step to achieving publication success and advancing your career as a researcher. While many researchers stumble upon their research questions of choice through their own curiosity, many others find choosing a research question a stressful task because of the immense pressure to publish. Worse, the latter group of researchers often hesitate to ask the question you have because they believe that they have to figure this out for themselves.
There are two important factors that should be considered while arriving at a research question: feasibility and interest.
Feasibility is determined by the skill of the researcher and the technology available in the researcher’s lab. On the other hand, deciding the interest of a research problem is very subjective. You could choose a research question that is of personal interest to you or one that is a hot, current topic in your community.
Choosing a research question that you are interested in helps to sustain your motivation throughout the project, which is very essential for a career in research. It is important for research advisors to spend time talking and listening to young researchers in order to help them identify their areas of interest and choose a research question that feasible. Research questions that are easy but not too interesting should be avoided, as should those that are interesting but impractical to work on. The ideal research question is both feasible and of high interest.
The kind of question chosen and the challenges associated with it largely depend on what stage a researcher is at in his/her career. A graduate student or an early-career researcher would like to choose a problem that is easy to solve so that any success and positive feedback would boost his/her confidence. Similarly, due to time constraints and difficulties in securing funds, post-docs prefer projects that are easy but would lead to a large gain in knowledge. On the other hand, a principal investigator just beginning to head a lab needs a large and perhaps complex question that can be divided into many smaller projects.
A common mistake made by graduate students at the beginning of their career is choosing the first problem that comes to mind. Uri Alon, a Professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, says, “It takes time to find a good problem, and every week spent in choosing one can save months or years later on.”
A graduate student should spend the first few months reading and discussing potential problems while avoiding the temptation to start work on a project immediately. This requires some amount of conviction on the part of the student and support from the advisor. Unfortunately, insufficient funding and grant deadlines are some of the factors that often limit this preparatory time. However, overcoming these difficulties and spending time choosing a feasible and interesting problem can make a huge difference in the long run.
Once you have chosen a research question and set out clear objectives, you begin your journey towards your goal. But what happens next? You encounter unanticipated technical limitations or failed experiments and your project turns out very different from how you had initially conceived it.
In these situations, a new research question may pop up in your mind, and you may find yourself taking a detour from your objectives. This happens to all researchers; what distinguishes great researchers at this point is their openness to modifying their research questions based on their experience and new information available, without compromising on their broader goal.
In the end, if your research was able to add an interesting piece of information to your field, you have succeeded.