How to find your next research project?

For many early career academics starting up new projects after an all-consuming PhD can be hard. How do you find new topics that are interesting enough to work on? I have found the following helpful.

1. Always have an academic mind-set!

Especially if you work in the Social Sciences and your research methods are on the qualitative side, including maybe participant observation and ethnography, anything you encounter in life can be a research project. For me, the best example of this practice is one of my mentees, Ling Eleanor Zhang. She is just brilliant at constantly generating research ideas and turning drawbacks into research opportunities.

  • As an ethnic Chinese and an acculturated Finn, she treats the interactions with surprised (and sometimes a little hostile) individuals who don’t want to accept she is part Finnish, as an ethnographic study of how people deal with bi-culturals. She constantly connects what she has learnt and read in academic writing with life philosophy.
  • When a research colleague commented on how her German-accented English was evaluated negatively after a conference presentation, Ling suggested monitoring the reactions we (a multi-lingual research group) perceive and receive in preparation for a project on how accents can shape perceptions.
  • Being one of the founders of HROB (a London-based network of female academics in Human Resource Management and Organization Behaviour), Ling is always on the look-out for opportunities for our network to collaborate academically beyond our regular seminars. Ideas so far have been a blog series about working in different countries and a bi-annual research conference.
  • When we failed to get access to a research site and encountered cultural differences in communication styles, Ling systematically filed all the emails for potential analysis of communication differences across cultures.
  • As an animal lover, Ling has been paying attention to how media such as TV ads and news, have been describing cats and dogs in relation to gender themes. Linking with her main research interest, which is the management of mobile workers across different boundaries, she hopes to develop a hobby project involving transnational pets of mobile workers.


2. Be very organised

Oftentimes fledgling research ideas get lost, because we do not make the effort to systematically document them. Remember it can sometimes take years before a research idea matures into a fully-fledged research project. So it is important to carefully document your ideas. Make sure you file away information about ideas (e.g. literature, emails) in a systematic and logical way. In the electronic age, storage space is cheap, and there is no particular need for sophisticated software. You might open a separate email folder for every potential new project and copy any relevant emails there. Or you might simply create a Word document with self-explanatory title and just dump any ideas in there.

3. Make the most of conferences

When attending conferences go to any session that somehow “piques” your interest, even if it doesn’t seem to be clearly related to your own research. It might just spark new ideas. Not all of these ideas will lead to full-blown research projects, but you never know in advance which of them will, so don’t self-censor. At a conference, try to not always hang out with the same people. I know it is comforting and reassuring and – especially as an introvert – it can be hard to bring up the courage to talk to new people. However, venturing out of your comfortable environment – even if only for a short while – is bound to give you new ideas and impulses.

4. Take lots of long plane journeys

Some of my best research originated from the trip back home from a conference. Obviously the conference itself provides inspiration, but there seems to be something about long plane journeys that encourages free-flowing reflection. This is not entirely surprising. After all, there are only so many movies you can watch and when you can’t sleep and your eyes are too tired to read, your mind will wander freely. You don’t necessarily need to move to Australia (as I did) to ensure regular 30-hour journeys. For many of us the effect materialises in any journey over six hours or so.


5. Be critical: not everything that is published is necessarily true!

Don’t take anything for granted. Many of my own research projects have started out by puzzlement or even bewilderment about something I had read or found (see e.g. expatriate failure rates, academic referencing, health warning, cultural distance). Rather than trying to rationalise that “what is published must be true”, be critical and conduct your own investigations. If you are like me, you might even enjoy the detective work involved!

6. Cast the web a little wider: the research process matters too

Remember that sometimes the research process can be as interesting to write about as the actual research outcome. Traditionally very little information was available to researchers wanting to do research outside their home country or country of residence. As most of my research crossed country borders I have written about many topics relating to the international research process: cross-national differences in response styles, response rates in international mail surveys, the impact of the language of the questionnaire, the use of ranking vs. rating to reduce response style and language bias. Recently, I summarised a lot of these findings in this paper:

  • Harzing, A.W.; Reiche B.S.; Pudelko, M. (2013) Challenges in international survey research: A review with illustrations and suggested solutions for best practice, European Journal of International Management, 7(1): 112-134. Available online... - Publisher's version (free access!)

Returning to Ling Eleanor Zhang, she recently published a very interesting paper about how bi-culturals can deal with their own bi-cultural identity when doing field research. It is a fascinating story, even for those of us who are not bi-cultural. Sometimes research can be me-search AND be useful to other researchers.

  • Zhang, L.E. & Guttormsen, D.S.A. (2016) ‘Multiculturality’ as a Key Methodological Challenge during In-depth Interviewing in International Business Research. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 23(2): 232-256. Available online...Publisher's version

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