Before I got distracted by the awesome Statement of Purpose Contest, I'd started drafting a post about the generation of ideas for research, inspired by a recent Chronicle of Higher Education essay by Robert Hampel ("In Search of New Frontiers: How Scholars Generate Ideas"). Zuska beat me to it with an interesting post on this topic, but I have a few things to add.
I think it is interesting and useful to discuss strategies for generating research ideas and what exactly constitutes a new idea for scholarly investigation and thought. The Chronicle article contains good advice about how you can cultivate some intriguing ideas for scholarly pursuits (e.g., have conversations with colleagues at conferences, over lunch, in a cafe, wherever).
Hampel mentions several colleagues, each of whom has a different method of generating and/or organizing ideas. The variety of approaches is apparently evidence for a lack of "coaching" in graduate school or during other educational experiences. Hampel wrote:
Surprisingly, no one I spoke with had been taught how to generate topics for future research during their years in graduate school. Several said that since research had pervaded the ethos of their university, they had merely absorbed the spirit of curiosity.
Why is it surprising, and why is it a problem not to have been taught in an organized way about idea generation? Would it be a good thing if everyone had the same method of idea generation?
How do you teach someone to have ideas, other than by example? Isn't absorbing the spirit of curiosity a major step towards generating ideas? As a student, you don't have to be told explicitly by a professor "OK, now I am going to teach you how to generate ideas". In grad school, you learn by doing, you learn by watching, you learn by absorbing, and then you figure out how you want to do things.
I definitely think it is good to have conversations with students and postdocs about some of the idea-generating concepts discussed by Hampel and Zuska (and her commenters), and I think that another important role for faculty and other advisors is to give students and postdocs the confidence to express and develop their own ideas.
In the course of our advising and teaching, we can provide information that helps our students and postdocs to develop ideas and recognize what is a good idea and what might not be such a good idea. As advisors, we also teach others how to follow through on an idea. That is, once you have an idea or a glimmer of one, what do you do about it?
Even if your grad project and/or postdoctoral research involves doing tasks related to someone else's ideas, by doing research, you are gaining skills, either specific ones or general ones, that should be useful when you are in a position to work on your own ideas. By reading papers, listening to talks, doing research, and other basic activities of the academic life, you should be able to acquire sufficient knowledge and experience to make a start on your own career of ideas.
I also think that students can take some initiative and ask questions about these things. If you really have no idea how researchers generate and frame an idea, you can initiate discussions with various people in your academic environment. Most of us advisors probably assume that our grad students are learning these things as they go along and asking questions as they occur.
When I was a young assistant professor, one of my first Ph.D. students* came to talk to me. He told me that he had some general questions about being a professor, and he wanted to discuss these so that he was well prepared for the day when he was a professor himself. I told him that I thought this was great and that I was happy to discuss these things with him. He paused, looked around my office for a moment, then asked "How do you decide what labels to put on your filing cabinets?".
There are some things you can teach.. and some things you can't.
* who subsequently failed his exams and went to another university and then dropped out of that school and I have no idea where he is now but I hope he found something that he enjoyed and was good at doing
10 years ago