From the APA Science Student Council

Curing Researcher's Block: Generating Innovative Research Ideas

Attending lectures, reading broadly and other strategies can help you develop new projects.

By Winny Shen

As the school year moves into full swing, many of us settle back into our regular routines and engage in a little self-reflection. We ask ourselves questions such as: "How much progress have I made in my research over the summer break?" and "Is my curriculum vitae looking a little bare for that grant application/fellowship/upcoming job search?" More often than not, the conclusion we draw is that we can be more productive researchers by taking on new research projects. But what projects? Fear not, brave researcher who dares to ask this question. Below is a list of activities that can help you to overcome "researcher's block."

Attend lectures, workshops, and conferences
Attending lectures, workshops, and conferences regularly is an easy way to inject some new intellectual material into your research. Are you interested in a new or interdisciplinary research topic, but have limited familiarity with it? Networking with colleagues at these events can not only inspire great research ideas, but also generate opportunities for collaboration. Attend a workshop on a new methodology or statistical technique. Consider how these new methods can be incorporated into your research. Be adventurous at professional meetings (and in your coursework choices), and grasp the opportunity to learn more about topics outside your normal research interests.

Read broadly within and outside of your discipline
In this modern information age, there is more psychological research being published than ever before. To manage this flow of information, many of us have chosen to specialize and to read only journals in our specialty areas. However, reading a publication targeted toward a broader psychology audience (e.g., American Psychologist), a general science audience (e.g., Science), or toward the lay reader (e.g., Psychology Today) can help keep us abreast of interesting developments in the field at large. Perhaps your area utilizes unique methodologies or provides an alternative perspective or theory that can be used to better understand a research question in another area. Or perhaps your area has something to offer in solving pressing social issues, such as climate change, poverty, or discrimination. A broader worldview can often lead to novel research ideas.

Revisit your definition of "research"
In addition to our role as researchers, we all occupy many other roles. One way to generate new research ideas is to create a synergistic relationship among your various roles. For example, many researchers are also teachers. Consider applying your research skill set toward improving our knowledge of effective teaching strategies by designing an experiment in your own classroom. This approach will help you expand your viewpoint of research topics to pursue.

Draw inspiration from daily observations
At its core, psychology is the study of human behavior. As casual observers of daily life, we are all constantly collecting data about our world. Many research ideas can be inspired by the popular media or your own daily observations. As an example, perhaps you've noticed that there is a lack of representation of women or minorities in your subdiscipline and have some testable theories about why this occurs. By drawing upon our everyday lives, we can generate new research ideas. Perhaps Isaac Newton would have formulated his theory of gravitation sooner if he spent more time outdoors observing apple trees. So to keep track of your research ideas, keep a research journal handy to capture interesting thoughts, concepts, or theories as they occur to you. You never know when inspiration, or an apple, will strike.

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Winny Shen, who occupies the industrial/organizational research position on the APA Science Student Council, is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests are in fairness and diversity issues in educational and organizational settings, the prediction and measurement of academic and job performance, emotional intelligence and leadership, and occupational health psychology.