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Identifying your research question

Making informed decisions about what to study, and defining your research question, even within a predetermined field, is critical to a successful research career, and can be one of the hardest challenges for a scientist.

Being knowledgeable about the state of your field and up-to-date with recent developments can help you:

  • Make decisions about what to study within niche research areas
  • Identify top researchers in your field whose work you can follow and potentially collaborate with
  • Find important journals to read regularly and publish in
  • Explain to others why your work is important by being able to recount the bigger picture

How can you identify a research question?

Reading regularly is the most common way of identifying a good research question. This enables you to keep up to date with recent advancements and identify certain issues or unsolved problems that keep appearing.

Begin by searching for and reading literature in your field. Start with general interest journals, but don’t limit yourself to journal publications only; you can also look for clues in the news or on research blogs. Once you have identified a few interesting topics, you should be reading the table of contents of journals and the abstracts of most articles in that subject area. Papers that are directly related to your research you should read in their entirety.

TIP Keep an eye out for Review papers and special issues in your chosen subject area as they are very helpful in discovering new areas and hot topics.

TIP: you can sign up to receive table of contents or notifications when articles are published in your field from most journals or publishers.

TIP: Joining a journal club is a great way to read and dissect published papers in and around your subject area. Usually consisting of 5-10 people from the same research group or institute they meet to evaluate the good and bad points of the research presented in the paper. This not only helps you keep up to date with the field but helps you become familiar with what is necessary for a good paper which can help when you come to write your own.

If possible, communicate with some of the authors of these manuscripts via email or in person. Going to conferences if possible is a great way to meet some of these authors. Often, talking with the author of an important work in your research area will give you more ideas than just reading the manuscript would.