How to find a good research question

Choosing a research question to explore can be hard, whether the choice comes at a career junction or after an important experiment. Reading deeply and widely, being open to ideas, and following your curiosity will help you build the necessary intuition to make the right choice when the time comes.
How to find a good research question

When I first set foot into a research lab, a whole new world opened up to me. Brilliant young people came in early in the morning to conduct experiments, write analysis scripts, craft appealing visualizations of their findings, and push the boundaries of knowledge. It was a transformative experience for me, and I wanted to be part of this world. So, I also came in early in the morning, got acquainted with cell culture and protein purification techniques and gave my best to contribute to an ongoing project in the lab. Although I had been enrolled in university for a couple of years already and had listened to plenty of lectures, actually doing research is something I was hardly prepared for. It is hard enough to get an experiment working – an experiment worth doing is finicky beyond imagination – but the truly hard problem awaits when one choses which experiment should be done next. Indeed, what is the most important problem one should try to solve? After all, time is the one truly limiting factor in science and we cannot tackle everything that piques our curiosity.

As I have now experienced the reality of a researcher for about one decade, I see this question coming up in two contexts. The first one is described above, and we face it when an experiment just provided us with new data – possible avenues for follow-up experiments open up before our inner eye and we are drawn in different directions. In the second one, a project was just finished (e.g., your PhD) and you are free to explore fresh and independent ideas. How should one decide? In my mind, the answer in both cases comes down to intuition. “Well great” you might think, “what if I don't have this kind of intuition?”. Fret not. I am convinced that this intuitive decision-making process can be learned. Before I delve into it, let me emphasize that in science as in life, there is not one size that fits all and the experiences I had do not necessarily have to translate to your particular situation and mindset. However, I am convinced that being exposed to as many ideas as possible regarding how to make scientific decisions is necessary to carve one’s own path.

At the risk of stating the obvious, if you do not recognize an opportunity, you will not be able to seize it. Meaningful observations in biology almost always span multiple levels of explanation, ranging from molecular to behavioral patterns. You truly must be widely read and on top of the scientific literature to be able to make associations between your data and potentially related insights that do not necessarily come from your main field of expertise or interest. Even if cutting-edge research often demands of us to become experts in one domain or technique, never sacrifice the ability to scrutinize your data from a birds-eye perspective – cultivate both technical depth and a wide interest. 

A second point worth emphasizing is the observation that mature scientists always juggle a couple of questions in their mind. These might be logical extensions of their ongoing research agenda or simply ideas that so far could not be explored due to technical limitations. However, should the opportunity present itself, these ideas will be tested in the lab at once. The thought process should always outrun the pace of the experiments. This way, the path to be taken is no more than a cached thought that can be applied almost without actual deliberation. In a way, this second point is an extension of the first one – the joy of thinking and reading widely necessarily leads to a reflection on a multitude of questions, some of which are guaranteed to be of deep relevance to us.

This now brings me to the last point and maybe the most important one. When in doubt, always choose the question that makes you want to answer it. Research is famously a long and arduous process and the ability to endure and even enjoy delayed gratification only carries you so far. During my undergraduate and early graduate studies, I tried to maximize the time spent in various research labs, working on topics ranging from evolutionary and developmental biology to spatial navigation and neurological disorders. From this time, I learned that most research questions I encountered were exciting to me but not all of them would keep me invested long-term. This insight was tremendously relevant for me. When people give you advice on how to choose a research question, you will often hear stereotypic answers such as “solve the most important problem in your field” or “be as impactful as possible”, but importance and impact are hard to quantify and often it becomes clear only in retrospect that a certain line of research was truly significant. I am not saying that these values should be disregarded, but if the quantity to be maximized (such as importance) cannot really be quantified, other criteria become necessary. Here is where intuition kicks in. All of us are different in our attitudes, experiences, and skills. It is only natural that this translates into very different perspectives on what one wants to work on. In combination with the two points I have outlined above, this will result in an intuitive understanding of how to proceed. Listen to this inner voice and cultivate it.

In conclusion, finding a compelling research question is a journey that intertwines deep scientific knowledge with personal intuition and passion. It begins with a commitment to broad and continuous learning, allowing you to make connections across disciplines and recognize the potential in unexpected insights. Build the habit of thinking broadly and deeply about multiple questions, always keeping an eye on those that resonate with your curiosity and passion. Reflect on the questions that make you eager to explore and endure the challenges of research. Ask yourself: Which questions ignite a spark within me? How do my skills and experiences align with the needs of these questions? By listening to your inner voice and fostering a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, you will navigate towards research questions that not only promise to advance knowledge but also sustain your motivation and commitment over the long haul. Remember, the most impactful research often arises from a blend of curiosity-driven exploration and the intuitive recognition of an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of the world.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash 

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