How to come up with new research ideas in 5 easy steps?

Creativity is a key skill to become a successful academic. Therefore, developing an efficient process to come up with new research ideas is fundamental to your academic career success!

Creativity is a key skill to become a successful academic. Therefore, developing an efficient process to come up with new research ideas is fundamental to your academic career success!

As academics and researchers, we’re at the forefront of the current body of knowledge. We constantly push these boundaries forward, finding innovative and out-of-the-box solutions to the challenges that our generation is currently facing.

But do you know what does make or break the academic careers?

In my view, it’s your ability to come up with new research ideas!

I’m not saying that sound research methods, comprehensive analysis and discussion of the results aren’t important. These are key to producing high-quality outputs.

But it all starts with an idea!

I’ve recognised this from the very beginning of my PhD when I set up a folder “research ideas” that I keep constantly updating.

When talking with you via social media, I noted that many of you ask “how to come up with new research ideas” and “how to define the focus of my research article”. Coming up with ideas can be difficult, especially at the very beginning of your PhD or when you’re entering a new research area.

In this article, I share the 5-step process that I still use to come up with new ideas for my research!

Use a simple 5-step process to come up with new research ideas!
Wondering how to come up with new research ideas? Use this simple 5-step process!

Decide on a societal challenge you want to tackle in your research

When you decided to pursue research or academic career, you must have had a reason for this. Undeniably, there are lots of benefits of being an academic.

But why YOU decided to pursue this career path?

To find out, you should be able to answer these questions:

– what is it that you want to ACHIEVE in your career?

– what is it that drives and inspires you?

– what is it that you care about the most in your life?

There are many societal challenges that we’ve got to deal with now or will need to deal with in the foreseeable future.  

If you focus on a specific societal challenge in your research, you’ll be able to achieve a better focus in your work. But more importantly, it’ll give you a purpose to keep on pushing, regardless of the challenges you’ll experience.

For example, my career goal is to contribute towards solving climate emergency!

I’d love to add that you don’t have to limit yourself to solving a single challenge. Most of us tend to get involved in research that focuses on solving different challenges throughout our academic careers.

Understand the current state-of-the-art 

Once you decide on the specific challenge that you want to tackle at this point of your research career, you need to understand what has been done so far.

Without understanding the state-of-the-art, you won’t be able to accurately set the hypothesis for your research.

What’s the best way to learn about any research area?

Yes, you got this right – you’ve got to conduct a literature review to gain a profound understanding of the key concepts, challenges and limitations of the current research. Here are some tools I shared that can supercharge your literature review.

Importantly, when you perform such a literature review, you not only gain an understanding of the specific research area. You’ll also start noticing the challenges and limitations of the research that has already been done.

This, in turn, will help you to define the research gap that you can tackle in your work.

For example, the focus of my PhD project was to reduce the energy requirement of carbon capture so that it’s more economically viable for industrial deployment.

Learn about your area as much as you can!

Identify viable solutions 

Now that you know the focus of your project and the research gap(s) that you want to tackle, it’s time to get creative and come up with viable solutions that can (potentially) resolve the challenge you consider.

To do so, you’ll need to conduct a further literature review. Yes, I know – not this again! But this time, you’ll focus entirely on identifying solutions that have already been tested. Bear in mind, these don’t need to be limited to solutions related to your research gap – think outside the box!

Let me give an example from my PhD. The main issue with carbon capture is that it’s an energy-intensive process and needs heat to drive some of the reactions. At the beginning of my PhD, I got inspired by the high-temperature processes because of these resembled conventional power plants rather than chemical plants. The benefit? My research improved the efficiency significantly, not only focusing on new reaction pathways but also on energy efficiency, drawing from both chemical engineering and power engineering.  

I encourage you to be open to other research areas and brainstorm with your research team. They may not give you the exact solution, but may inspire you to come up with interesting ideas and solutions!

As you read on, you may want to use mind-mapping or note-taking research tools to keep track of your ideas.

Rank new research ideas

Once you’ve identified several potential ideas for your research, you need to decide which one to pursue first.

This may be difficult, I warn you, but don’t let this delay your project.

I usually go with my gut feeling and select the idea that excites me the most, and you may want to do the same. Remember to validate your selected research idea!

But I don’t discard the other ideas – after all, you’ve spent so much time developing them.

Instead, check if there’s any logical sequence in these ideas. Does one piece of work need to go before another? If yes, plan your work subsequently!

But remember, research is, in most cases, an exploratory process. This means that you may produce several new ideas when working on the first idea from your list! Again, write them down and save for later.

Write down all your new research ideas!
Write down all your new research ideas!

Record the progress and reflect

Once you’ve identified the idea to work on, you’re ready to go. You’ve got this feeling that you can finally start working on your research and develop solutions that’ll be transformative and hopefully will contribute towards resolving societal challenges.


…there’s one more step I want you to consider in when you’re coming up with new research ideas.

I want you to remember to record what you did in the idea-creation process, what tools did you use in this process, what keywords did you applied in searching the literature and so on.

Record what worked for you best and what didn’t and reflect on how you can use this to improve next time. Believe me, you’ll be grateful to yourself for doing so.

A final word…

Coming up with new research ideas can be a trying task, especially at the beginning of a new research project.

However, you may ease your pain with an efficient process and, consequently, enjoy the process.

Although this process relies on reading and collating lots of information, understanding the state-of-the-art is key to understanding the challenges in your respective research area.  

There’re numerous brainstorming tools and frameworks that can support you in developing ideas, such as mind-mapping tools, and subsequently ranking them.

I urge you to reflect on the entire process to understand what works for you best!

How do you generate new research ideas for your work?

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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