Brainstorm & Incubate Ideas in Your Research Notebook

Successful academics conduct research - period. How do you get started? Where do you find research ideas?

 How to Find Research Ideas
Research ideas can come out of nowhere -- but don't count on yours to just flash on like a light bulb. Look for ideas systematically and at all times. Must you constantly rack your brain looking for topics? No. Just be open to new ideas.

 The most important thing to do when you discover an idea is to record it. Don't count on remembering it later. Instead, capture ideas quickly - without judgment. Then consider each at your convenience later. Keep a record of your ideas and activities as an ongoing log of your thoughts about your research. That is, maintain a research notebook. Your notebook might be a physical book or digital - whatever is most convenient and whatever you will actually use.

What to Write in Your Research Notebook

  • Notes on your research activities and any questions that arise
  • Problems in your research: What's not working?
  • Possible solutions to research problems
  • Alternative solutions or explanations for problems
  • Articles to read and researchers to follow
  • Student and faculty contacts and comments on their work
  • Notes on articles and papers you've read
  • Ideas and comments on your term papers and class assignments

Begin your log early in your graduate school career, long before you're pressed to find a dissertation topic. Write freely. Don't judge. Just write. Evaluate later. Your log is for your eyes only.

Keep Notes on Interesting Articles 
This is perhaps most important: When you read an interesting article, record it in your log (even if you don't think it's an area of research for you -- you never know what you'll decide years from now). Record the following:

  • The topic
  • How the authors studied it
  • What did they find
  • Ideas the authors suggest for further research
  •  What was striking? Why did you record it?
  • Your own ideas

Review Your Notebook Regularly 
Every now and then, read your notebook. Over time you may notice themes, thoughts that seem to connect, and patterns. Recurring themes may suggest avenues for research that might form your dissertation. Sure, not everything that you capture in your notebook will become a study, but a written record is an important way of learning about your research interests, defining them, and crafting workable ideas.

Regularly Update Your Notebook 
Keep your notebook up to date, even once you have found a dissertation topic. In fact, your notebook will be especially important once you start your own research. As you find potential dissertation ideas, thoroughly read the related literature, noting your thoughts. You'll never complete your review of the literature as new articles are constantly published. Be aware of the literature in your area and note how your work is different from others.

When you begin your research, note its progress in your notebook. Write down questions, problems that emerge, and notes on your methodology and results. Your research notebook is a record of what you hypothesized, did, and found, as well as a place to consider the implications of your work. Continue to read current articles about your topic and record your comments. You'll find your research record invaluable as you write your dissertation.