On choosing a research problem

One of the big questions facing (especially) young researchers, at the anvil of choosing a research career, is finding a problem. There are many ways to go about doing this.

  • Follow the leader: One can find a big and successful lab with a famous scientist and hope good ideas from the lab come to you and inspire you
  • Follow the money: Find a topic that is being funded heavily by Public or Private agencies, since that might be something that is also socially relevant. There are many pitfalls here. But it’s a sense of doing socially useful science. It might therefore be very applied too.
  • Follow the market: Industry has always attracted science. And science has sometimes attracted industry, less so in this country. If you enjoy tight deadline working, and are looking for new goals, new challenges every year,  with a driver of novelty coming from the market.
  • Follow your heart: Find and identify the problem that really does make you curious, for rational reasons or irrational ones. This requires a very curious mind, and might not be a good startpoint for all minds. Yoshinori Oshsumi (Nobel Prize winner 2016 for Physiology and Medicine) however is a shining example of this as highlighted in this 2012 article “Yoshinori Ohsumi: Autophagy from the beginning to the end” in J. Cell. Biol. This is also the hardest.

And adding to all of this is, once you choose a problem to continue pursuing it. C.V. Raman is reported to have said “Science can only flower out when there is an internal urge. It cannot thrive under external pressure.” (21/11/1970) [Barry Masters on C.V. Raman].

Further reading

  • Peter B. Medawar (1979) Advice to a Young Scientist. Classic book, still relevant
  • Alon U. (2009) How to choose a good scientific problem. Molec. Cell. 2009 Sep 24;35(6):726-8. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2009.09.013.
  • C.V. Raman and the Raman Effect by Barry R. Masters on the OSA website weblink

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