How do people decide what to focus on in their research? It's not that I don't have any ideas the problem is that I have a lot of different ideas and I can't decide which to focus on. And how do people stay motivated to work on research? My current job has pretty low research expectations so there's not really that push any more. But I do want to stay active in that. It somehow feels like I'm not a real scholar if I don't. And while I don't have any plans to go on the market in the immediate future, I wouldn't mind keeping my options open in the long term. (I love the day to day work of my job, but I'm increasingly less sure about the upper level admin and not crazy about the region).
Good questions! While we're all different, and what works for one person might not work for another, my own strategy is two-fold:
- I prioritize whichever project seems clearest to me (the one I'll have the easiest time getting down on paper), and
- Failing that, I just work on whatever I'm most excited about.
- If I'm not excited about or clear on anything, I take a research break and do other stuff!
In practice, here's how this works...
Here, in brief, is why I do things this way: I find that prioritizing whichever project I'm clearest on helps me be efficient. Because I'm relatively clear on the argument in question, I have an easy time getting a draft out. That in turn helps me stay motivated: it actually makes research and writing fun. Even if the paper in question isn't the one I'm most excited about, getting it drafted quickly makes me feel like I accomplished something--and it makes me more excited to move onto the next. Further, I often find that when a project is going well (i.e. drafting it is easy), the project can seem more exciting--and indeed, one often has insights along the way when drafting such a paper that can one more excited about it than one was beforehand.
Of course, things don't always go according to plan. Sometimes, I think I'm fairly clear on an argument or think it's promising, but then when I sit down and try to write the thing I find I wasn't as clear or promising as I thought. When this happens, I don't waste time staring at my computer screen trying to think the argument through (something I did a lot of in grad school and early in my post-grad career, and which tended to leave me frustrated and unmotivated). Instead, whenever I get "stuck" on something (i.e. a paper draft isn't coming easily), I tend to move on fairly quickly to some other project I feel clearer on. Much of the time, this works like a charm. I set the first project aside, move onto the other, get that one on paper, and move back to the first one later (if and when things about it clear up in my head).
And if I'm not at all clear on any of the projects I'm excited about? This does happen sometimes...and though sometimes I try to force things, I've found its generally better in my case not to. When I'm really struggling to get clear on my current research ideas, or if I don't have any I'm that excited about, I tend to find I'm better served by simply walking away from them for a while to do other things (i.e. teach, read new things, etc.). Why? First, it's a good way to avoid getting frustrated (sitting at a computer trying to make arguments work that just won't come is no fun at all!). Second, just walking away from projects for a while--for several months even--can often help clear them up. Our minds tend to work on things a lot in the background, and a solution to something you were struggling with months ago can come to you out of the blue. Finally, taking some time away in these cases--to read, teach, etc.--can lead to unexpected new ideas!
I guess I would add one more thing, which is that I try to enjoy research and writing for its own sake and worry less about the publishing side of things. Though of course I still send stuff to journals, I've found it more motivating to just enjoy drafting new things up and see where they lead. I draft up quite a lot of stuff, but only send a fraction of it to journals. Why? While it might seem terribly inefficient, I've found it makes research a heck of a lot of fun--to just pursue one lead after another and see where they go (or don't go). It's also worth noting that empirical psychology generally backs up the idea that intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic, and that extrinsic motivation actually tends to make people less intrinsically motivated. In short, I've always been a bit partial Linus Pauling's saying, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." Just have fun with ideas! The focus and motivation will come. :)
Or so I say. What say you? How do you decide which of your projects to focus on?