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How to get in on a research topic???


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As a first-year student, how do I get in on a good research topic? Am I already supposed to come up with my own? My advisor has tried to give me a couple of ideas but they are really not publishable.

I'm involved with a research team for a particular project, but I have nothing to do and it's going nowhere. I talked to the lead guy and he told me to tell him what I want to work on and that's fine... is this normal? Just work on something out of my own head on this huge project? I don't know what to work on.

I thought it would be a good idea to get involved in an existing project so I could learn and not have to do novel research on my own yet.

Can anyone offer tips on how this works? How do students find research topics and what's the best way to get involved?

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What is your field? I know you probably want to remain as anonymous as possible, but that might help answer your question.

I would say, generally, that one finds a research project by asking questions. What (unanswered) questions do you have about this research project you're on? Next, figure out a way to begin to answer these questions - discussing this with a faculty member is indispensable, because they will know about methodologies and research unknown to you.

Your question doesn't have to be huge, or even shouldn't be (don't think: "How to cure cancer?" for instance!) Think about other ways to approach a topic by exposing yourself to previous research.

Hope this helps! Finding a research topic requires a lot of perseverance and self-initiative, but it's worth it! (And then you have the effort of actually exploring that topic...)

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Finding good topics is somewhat of a skill that grad school should (though not always does) teach you.

I can tell you the things that I did in my first year, and you can decide which are relevant to you.

- Grad courses: taking classes that are designed to expose you to new topics and/or deepen your knowledge of topics you are already familiar with is one obvious way to develop a new interest. Your classes should by now not only cover the basic theories but also newer ones, where less is known or agreed on. When something catches your attention, read more on it. Meet with the professor and ask for guidance - they will usually know where to point you.

- Independent study: if/when you find a general topic of interest but feel like you don't know it well enough to define a project, I find that an "independent study" environment is very useful. For me, that means meeting with a professor on a regular basis; initially you need to read more and discuss what you've understood. After a while, you'll start to notice specific places where you think you could contribute, where the theory isn't making good (or any) predictions. That's the time to start designing a project with the help of the professor.

- join an existing project: start with doing a project someone else defined to pick up the necessary skills and gain some experience. After a while, you should start having your own ideas about how you could expand or improve on that work, or alternatively how you could apply your skills to an area you were exposed to elsewhere.

- expand an older project: take something that you are already familiar with and see if you can improve on it now, given the knowledge you've gained since the beginning of the year.

- talk to older grad students: your peers in more advanced years will probably have their own projects by now. Ask them how they got started and if they have any advice for you. Just looking at their CV can tell you a lot about how they got started.

All these things take time, especially in the first year which is independently time-consuming. I didn't get going on any meaningful project until the summer after my first year. Now that I've found my footing, though, I'm working on 4 projects (and writing 5 squibs besides..). Don't get discouraged, try to learn and consult as many resources as possible, and you'll find a project soon enough.

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