Marcus has been obliging Matt in his request for more autobiography as a way of providing advice. With the standard caveats that different approaches work for different people and that aspiring academics should take advice from me at their own risk, I thought I'd recount a successful research experience that differs from an approach that Marcus has advocated before.
I work on the ethics of geoengineering (aka climate engineering). In a nutshell, geoengineering is the deliberate manipulation of Earth systems to counteract climate change. As an example, one proposal for doing so is to inject aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, cooling the planet. I've been fortunate to attend interdisciplinary conferences at which I've been able to discuss the topic with other philosophers and with scientists and engineers. At a conference last January, I learned that many scientists assumed some controversial things about the ethics of geoengineering: First, they assumed that causing harms through geoengineering was the moral equivalent of allowing harms that would arise from climate change. Second, they insisted that people are now intentionally causing climate change because they (should) know that burning fossil fuels (etc.) is changing the climate. In general, the scientists were relying on a crudely consequentialist moral framework. (I'm not saying that all consequentialist frameworks are crude—just that theirs was!)
I have consequentialist sympathies, and I have my doubts about the Doctrine of Doing & Allowing, which implies the falsity of the scientists' first assumption, and the Doctrine of Double Effect, which implies the falsity of their second. But these scientists weren't just taking a stand in some controversy; they were totally unaware that the controversy existed. They saw their assumptions as beyond doubt and thought that anyone who denied those assumptions was being obtuse and should be dismissed in debates over geoengineering. So I resolved to write a paper to answer the question, "What do the Doctrine of Doing & Allowing and the Doctrine of Double Effect imply about the ethics of geoengineering?"
To set up the problem, I granted the scientists very favorable assumptions about the consequences of geoengineering and, given those assumptions, I framed the most plausible argument I could for the permissibility of geoengineering. I then asked whether either doctrine undermined the argument.
The problem was that I didn't know a whole lot about either doctrine. I knew enough to explain them, motivate them, and explain a few criticisms, but I certainly didn't know much of the voluminous literature on either one. So I set out to learn about them. I found two helpful anthologies and used PhilPapers' category system, Google Scholar's "Cited By" feature, and Academia.edu to other papers on the topic, including recent and forthcoming ones. I worked on the paper as I read: I would spend about two hours every morning working on the paper itself, and I would spend time most afternoons reading more about the questions and issues I'd encountered during the morning.
I spent about five months writing the paper, including several weeks of brainstorming at the beginning and a few weeks of waiting around for friends to comment on it at the end. (The best comments came from young philosophers working on the same stuff. I'd met them at conferences, usually between talks.) Although the process moved slowly, I learned a tremendous amount about the two doctrines as I was doing it. The paper got an R&R from a specialist journal, Ethics, Policy & Environment, which was the journal I'd had in mind as I was writing it. I spent about a week doing intensive revisions and got it accepted upon resubmission. I submitted the final version on October 30 of last year, almost nine months after I really began working on it. It comes out sometime late this year or early next year.
There are a few things worth highlighting about this process: (1) Slow and steady progress on a paper, even without input from others at the early stages, can yield a good, publishable product. (2) Researching while I was writing helped me sustain my enthusiasm for and forward momentum on the project. (3) Whereas I sometimes approach a paper with an argument in mind or a position that I want to defend, I approached this one with a question in mind: "What does p entail about topic T?" (4) Apropos Marcus's recent post on "the rules of chmess," the paper grew out of a philosophical problem that I saw non-philosophers grappling with—or failing to grapple with, in this case.