Saul Greenberg

Where Do Ideas Come From?

John Cleese: How To Be Creative (of Monty Python fame). Its funny and constructive.

Top Down Idea Generation: Identify a Specialized Area of Interest.

Start with your general domain of interest, e.g., graphics, human computer interaction, complexity theory. This area will likely be huge, so your next step is to narrow things down by searching for the specific area that really interests you.

Internal ways to identify areas

  • Talk to other grads in your lab
  • Get demonstrations of what they and others are doing
  • Experiment with any software that's built by others in your group so you get your hands dirty in the area (e.g., in the lab or downloadable from the net) that let you get your hands dirty in the area

External ways to identify areas

  • Read lots - conferences, journals, etc. You don't have to read every article. Rather, scan abstracts and browse those articles that seem more interesting. Mark the articles you like with (say) a postit note so you can go back and review it. Or copy the abstract and put it in a binder for later review.
  • Attend a key conference in your area if you can
  • As above, experiment with any software that's built by other research groups (e.g., in the lab or downloadable from the net)

Deciding on an area

  • Talk to your supervisor first. Some have specialized areas of interests and focused projects in mind that they will want you to work on. Others may be willing to consider projects outside their direct interest. Work with your supervisor on this!
  • It should be personally exciting and interesting to you. You will be working on this for a considerable amount of time.
  • It should be rich in scope
  • It should be topical i.e., something of relevance
  • It should be related to your supervisor's experiences so he/she can guide you to key papers/researchers/etc.

Once you found an area

Research the area to gain exposure to it. In particular, collect all intersting material you find in a binder. This means:

  • keeping copies of good articles (some people prefer electronic, but paper is easier to scan)
  • maintain a list of full references of these articles as a bibliography
  • better yet, create an annotated bibliography where you briefly note what is interesting about them
  • keep a folder or sketchbook or notebook where you can collect ideas or snippets related to this area
  • maintain a list of links to interesting web sites

At some point, you will find one or more specialized sub-area that snag your attention. You can now begin to go bottom up.

Bottom Up Idea Elaboration: Developing a Research Area

  • Start with several very small but interesting problems. Your supervisor will likely be more than happy to give you one if you want.
  • This problem does not have to be your thesis, nor does it have to be 'big enough' for a thesis. However, it should be rich enough in scope that it could be expanded to a thesis-sized problem.
  • A good starting problem can be:
    • something you can learn from and/or
    • something interesting enough that it could become a publication on its own, or fit within a larger publication as a sub-topic or example
    • something that adds to your knowledge, or the group's knowledge, or the world's knowledge
    • a case study and/or example of something that arose from prior research
    • a replication of something that someone else did (although the replication should add value, e.g., by varying something, by critiquing it, or by validating that the original 'thing' is correct)
  • Work on this problem until you gain some early successes and you understand it.
  • Good problems usually raise many questions and issues. Start listing these problems in (say) a sketchbook. These questions and issues almost always expand the small problem into something more suitable for a thesis
  • Try to rephrase the problem as:
    • the general problem
    • a set of very specific sub-problems,
    • goals (i.e., that you want to solve the problem)
    • methods (i.e., how you would go about solving the problems)
    • evaluation (i.e., how can you prove you solved the problems)
    • contributions (i.e., what would you offer if you actually solved it?)