What’s in an idea?

Image: Idea by Alexas_Fotos, CC-0, via pixabay.com

This is a guest post by Quinn Webber, a 2nd-year PhD student at Memorial University (MUN) in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Quinn is an avid science blog-reader and has begun writing for the MUN Graduate Studies blog. His post there on the origin of ideas struck a chord with me, and I asked him if he would adapt it for Scientist Sees Squirrel.

As a 2nd-year PhD student, I seem to spend most of my time coming up with ideas and plans for thesis chapters. As of now, the plan is for five chapters: a conceptual review that integrates the ideas underlying the rest of my thesis (currently in revision), followed by four ‘data’ chapters. Some of the ideas that make up these chapters have been rattling around in my brain for a few years, while others were conceptualized and refined in recent months after reading new literature and chatting with colleagues, lab-mates, and my supervisor. It’s the process of conceptualizing and acting on ideas that I’m interested in and excited about. Ideas become the blueprint that guide data collection, analysis, and ultimately the thesis or manuscript.

Grad studies is an amazing opportunity to come up with ideas for projects, or if the framework for the idea exists, to manipulate it and contribute to its evolution. While these opportunities are a key part of a challenging and rewarding experience, the process can be tough. Arguably the broadest, but possibly least interesting, objective of a MSc or PhD degree is to gain (and improve) technical skills. We often take courses or tutorials to learn these skills, such as statistical analysis. In contrast, learning how to conceive, select, and refine ideas and foster their growth is a meandering, convoluted process that isn’t typically a course that universities offer. While academia puts a lot of emphasis on our ability to produce ideas, some of the best inspirations for ideas can come from reading journal articles or books*, listening to peers in seminars or at conferences, and attending discussion groups or journal clubs.

Journal articles and books are full of great ideas that are waiting to be explored and, I think the best part is that they are not always obvious to everyone who reads them. Interesting ideas are often buried deep in papers and it can take a keen eye to find them. Authors may simply mention something offhand: something they may not have necessarily considered particularly interesting or compelling at the time, but something that could turn into a great idea ready for further exploration. I see this as analogous to the idiom: “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”

For example, I recently read Sueur et al.’s paper on collective decision making. I was inspired by the section header “Environmental variability and uncertainty” and subsequent sentence: “The social environment can often be considered a reflection of the ecological environment”. This sentence inspired me to explore and develop the idea further, and now it’s the basis for one of my thesis chapters. More specifically, I’m exploring the adaptive value of social behaviour and habitat selection in caribou, and how these behaviours may change as a function of ecological processes such as population density. Stay tuned for upcoming results!

Anyway, one way to decide whether an idea is worth pursuing is to follow up in the literature to see what other research is out there. This is, however, a double-edge sword. If no one has published on the idea, does that mean you’re a genius for thinking of it – or does it simply mean nobody is interested? Alternatively, if there’s a lot of research on the topic, does that mean you’re working on something of broad interest, with a higher probability of being scooped?

I think there are probably trade-offs. Proposing new ideas in the literature may be a tough sell for some reviewers, but if you can make it through peer review, my guess is that these ideas will eventually gather traction among your colleagues. If a conceptual/synthetic idea paper is followed up with one or more empirical papers testing the idea, the audience may begin to grow. However, as Steve argued recently, this may not always be the case: although we praise originality,  we don’t necessarily reward it the form of citations down the road. The other end of the spectrum is to work within a relatively well established framework of ideas. The benefit is that there is a lot to work with. For instance, integrating pre-existing ideas from different sub-disciplines can be fruitful and result in novel contributions. A potential downside, though, is that working within familiar ideas may leave one vulnerable to being scooped – and, as I understand, some scientific disciplines can be very competitive, so the thought of being scooped could become reality. This is not, of course, a binary scale; rather, I think I’ve described extreme ends of a continuum from generating completely novel ideas to working within a framework that may leads to being scooped. Most of us likely fall somewhere in the middle.

I’m not sure what later career folks think, but in my observation as an early career researcher, it seems that most academics propose and develop a few really great new ideas throughout their career, while spending quite a bit of time working within familiar old ideas – and perhaps finding themselves scooped a few times as a result (although in ecology, this seems to be relatively infrequent). Ultimately, if both happen to you, that’s probably a good thing – it means your ability to generate and work with ideas is diverse, and the research that follows is probably diverse too. I think knowing that both might happen is probably a valuable lesson for grad students – one I’ve learned from my mentors during my MSc and PhD (both indirectly from observing and directly from asking).

In summary, creativity is key. Integrating ideas that range from well established to novel and that may come from a number of (sub)disciplines, and integrating them in creative ways, is the goal. Over time, as we familiarize ourselves with the literature in our respective (sub)disciplines we accumulate ideas, the ability to develop and propose good ideas may become easier – but just like anything, it takes practice. I’ve learned not to underestimate the value of pieces of information that inspire me (not matter how small they are), or the insights and contributions that I’ve shared in casual conversations. And finally, no matter what they are, or where they come from, ideas are always a work on progress and I think we should always treat them that way.

© Quinn Webber, August 14, 2017.


*^Steve adds: One of the reasons I was so interested in this post, and asked Quinn to adapt it to run here, is that this connects directly to one of my first posts: “When not to read the literature”.  There, I argued that reading papers too early could cramp the development of ideas. Quinn’s counterpoint is interesting, and I wonder whether to some degree people just differ in whether reading the literature helps or hinders them in thinking creatively.


3 thoughts on “What’s in an idea?

  1. Willa Wu

    What resonates with me here is that many graduate students who keep putting off starting their thesis/dissertation often claim that they couldn’t find any groundbreaking ideas, and/or their proposed ideas may not be new enough. However, the truth, as Webber has pointed out, is that most researchers work “within familiar old ideas” most of their professional time. This little discovery, when accumulated, could still move the field forward. It’s ok for your thesis/dissertation not to save the world but make just a small impact in your field!


    1. Quinn Webber

      I agree! As a graduate student I feel like I am trying to wiggle through a (figuratively) crowded world – and I’ve come to terms with that being okay! Thanks for reading!


  2. Pingback: “Guest-post SPAM” is a thing now | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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