Choosing a good scientific research problem

This is a short article from the scientific journal, Molecular Cell, about choosing a good scientific problem. You might not be working in the field of cellular research but there is much the social sciences can learn from the natural sciences, and vice versa (see my previous post on Brian Cox and the importance of theory). There are a number of things which are particularly interesting in this article. I like the attempt to map possible research topics onto a graph with axes showing feasibility against whether the results have a significant impact. Difficult projects which result in a significant addition to the base of knowledge are clearly important but not necessarily where you should begin a research career (unless perhaps your name is Einstein). The best projects are those which are relatively easy to carry out yet have a significant impact, although such projects are not always easy to find, otherwise we would all be doing this kind of stuff all the time. As an undergraduate researcher you should be looking for what this author refers to as the ‘low-hanging fruit’, projects which are easy to complete with the resources available and which result in a modest increase in the body of knowledge. That doesn’t mean the results or the implications can’t be interesting, significant or new. I also like the emphasis on taking time to think about a problem, the author notes that in his lab students are made to spend 3 months mulling over a problem  before actually beginning their research. The timelines are compressed somewhat for the ambitious undergraduate researcher but begining to think about a final year research project from early in the second year is a good start.

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