Posted by: Jeremy Fox | April 9, 2012

From the archives: weak reasons for choosing a research project

It’s the time of year when many first year graduate students are preparing their research proposals. So now seems like a good time to repost my advice on how not to choose your research project.

One point I’d add to that post is that it’s always a bad idea to try to pretend that a project will test some general idea or theoretical prediction when it wasn’t actually designed to do so. A common mistake made by students (and sometimes their profs!) is to first design a project (often an applied project, or a specialized or system-specific project), and then go searching for a post-hoc rationale for that project in terms of general ideas and fundamental theory. All this does is open you up to tough questions that you won’t be able to answer. Questions like “If you’re serious about testing theory X, how come you’re not working in completely different system Y, which would make it much easier to test theory X?” If you’re serious about testing some general theoretical idea or principle, you need to take that principle as your starting point and design your study accordingly.

Similarly, it’s a bad idea to design a project to test some general theoretical idea, and then go searching for some applied rationale for that project. For instance, just because your project involves some abiotic environmental variable doesn’t mean your project is about climate change (I’m as guilty of this sort of claim as anyone, by the way).

This isn’t to say that there aren’t projects that can kill two birds with one stone–projects that both act as powerful tests of fundamental ideas, and have direct applied relevance. There are. But again, if that’s the kind of project you want, you need to design it that way from the very start.

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