Inception: the moment when a new research project is born
November 2017 (assistant professor)
What does it feel like at the moment when a new research project is born? I try to describe one such example here.
People sometimes ask me how I come up with new research project ideas that eventually lead to publications. And what does it feel like when such an idea is born?
The details differ for each project and are especially complex if I'm co-developing an idea together with my students or collaborators.
The simplest case to explain is when I come up with an idea on my own, which happened with several of my Ph.D. projects (read The Grind for details). Now as an assistant professor, most of my projects are co-developed with others, but occasionally I still get to do solo work.
For many such projects, there's often an inception moment when the germ of an idea crystallizes into my head almost wholly-formed, as if it came out of nowhere in a Eureka-like spark of inspiration. But the full story is always a lot more nuanced – usually involving months or years of incubation time when I had no clue that was the idea that would eventually form.
This morning, I had one of those inception moments when a new research project was born. I want to briefly walk you through what led up to this moment of clarity and what it feels like ...
I don't think it's a coincidence that this spark came after I took a step back away from my day-to-day work (this time when relaxing after traveling for work, but at other times in the past, during vacations or other moments away from the daily grind).
OK, so will this new idea really turn into a publishable project? I can't say for sure since I can't see the future. Maybe it won't pick up steam, maybe it'll totally flop, or maybe I'll get too busy with other projects to make headway on this one. Who knows?!? But the one thing I do know for sure is that many of my successful research projects in the past started with one of these sudden inception moments. Like I described above, though, they never come out of nowhere. These moments of inspiration come only after months or years of incubation, dead-ends, and weird turns of serendipity.
So the only actionable advice I have if you want to come up with such ideas is to continually stumble in the right direction.
For more thoughts along these lines, I highly recommend Steven Johnson's book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
Last modified: 2017-11-19