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Dear Buggy: Where Do Research Ideas Come From?

Dear Buggy is the the alter-ego of Dr. Chris MacQuarrie, a research entomologist with the Canadian Forest Service. You can ask Buggy questions of your own on Twitter @CMacQuar.

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Hello!

Dear Buggy has lept out of the pages of the ESC Bulletin and landed in the new and exciting wilderness of the ESC blog. My loyal readers shouldn’t worry, I’ll still be writing my column, but between editions of the Bulletin I’ll be posting here.

I’m very excited to be contributing to the ESC blog, but I’ll admit I am a tad nervous. When Crystal and Morgan invited me to contribute I was worried that it would be hard to come up with interesting topics. Thankfully the ideas began to flow after a glass of good scotch and I think I’ve come up with a few ideas that should keep me busy. After that? Well I’m always open to suggestions.

While thinking about this first blog post for ‘Dear Buggy’ I recalled how I felt when I first signed on to write Dear Buggy for the Bulletin. Where was I going to get these ideas!? Fortunately, a lot of the suggestions for my early columns come from the then-editor, Kevin Floate. Kevin had the original idea for Dear Buggy and shared with me his collection of questions and ideas. Later on, the ideas began to flow and inspiration came from others around me. Although, when I’m stuck for an topic I still go back to the original list that Kevin gave me. Good ideas can be hard to come by when you’ve got writer’s block and a deadline is fast approaching

As I planned this blog post I began to muse over the source of all my ideas, in particular “Where do I get my research ideas?”.

For example, when I was a new MSc student many of my research questions were influenced by the ideas of my supervisors. This isn’t all that unusual.  I suspect that when most of us started in research we were given, or at the least influenced, by ideas of others. As we mature scientifically we eventually start to come up with our own ideas. In fact, a good part of becoming a successful, independent researcher is tied to coming up with good ideas (which we might also call hypotheses). So where do these ideas come from? And perhaps more importantly, what do we do with these ideas once we have them?

I find inspiration hits at the oddest times and in the oddest places . I think Jorge Cham at PhD comics captured it best in this series of comics. Like most, I’ve been inspired in the ‘usual’ places: reading papers, attending seminars, talking with colleagues, etc… But inspiration can happen in other places as well. My mind tends to wander on my bike-ride home, when I’m pushing my daughter in her stroller, and quite often when I’m sharing a glass of scotch with my wife (who, lucky for me, is also an entomologist). As it turns out, this ‘mind wandering’ actually helps you have those ‘eureka’ moments, especially if you have been banging your head against the wall for awhile. I wrote recently about figuring out when you are best at writing. I think that advice can be extended to figuring out when and where you are inspired and to make sure you go there often.

But what about capturing ideas? My mind is like the proverbial sieve, but with one annoying quirk. I often can remember that I had an idea, I just can’t remember what it was.

To combat this selective memory I try to capture my ideas in my work journal as soon as possible. I’m a bit old fashioned so my journal is still kept in a notebook. Since my journal is also where I keep track my current projects, I make sure I highlight any new ideas so they are easy to find later on. There are many, many web-tools out there that can do the same job. The trick, though is to find something that works for you and to use it. My wife, for example,  is also an artist and long-ago got in the habit of carrying a sketchbook with her. That sketchbook now contains just as many ideas for research projects as it does ideas for art projects.

Finally, I must make a confession. Most of my ideas are bad. Some are half baked, others were thought of by someone else and rejected 30 years ago, a lot are impractical, infeasible, or near-impossible to execute or fit into the research that I’m doing. These over time get filtered out. Those that survive this process of natural selection, I keep. I then draw from this storehouse when the right moment comes along. Not all of these ideas will pan out of course, but by hanging on to the good ones I always have the right idea at hand when opportunity presents itself.

I’d be curious to hear about where you find your inspiration and how you track your ideas. Leave them in the comments section and I’ll summarize the best ones in a later post.

Cheers and see you next month,

Buggy.

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One comment on “Dear Buggy: Where Do Research Ideas Come From?

  1. The really important thing is not to judge the idea before you write it down. The sort of mind space that is good at coming up with ideas is equally /bad/ at judging them. If it’s bad later you can always throw it out. If it’s good and you throw it out, who knows if you can get it back later?

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