2021 is here, and many of us are returning from our first break since the summer months (if we took one) with fresh eyes and rekindled motivation… and many of us aren’t. If you’re feeling listless and uninspired by your current research projects, maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit. While changing up some of your research lines won’t clear out your inbox of unanswered emails, end the pandemic, fix the academic job market, or prevent the collapse of society, it might just help you to enjoy your 2021 a bit more. Here are some tips for ways to shake up your research lines for the new year.
Think about new populations. While COVID-19 has slowed down many PI’s abilities to collect data through in-person sessions with college students, there are lots of other ways to collect data using online populations. Has your favorite research finding been replicated in a diverse sample of participants? Or are there specific groups that deserve attention? What about the older adults or children? Take advantage of this opportunity to explore new subject populations in your research.
Try new ways to brainstorm ideas. Write every key word related to your research interests on a notecard. Shuffle the note cards and draw five at random. Try to think of a research idea that incorporates at least three of the words you drew. Write it down and do this a few more times. See if you can’t stumble across a new idea that gets you excited about getting back to the lab.
Add biological measures to your studies. This is a great way to add some new and exciting appeal to an old research question. Take a few minutes to think about the biological processes that might be involved in your favorite behavior or cognitive process. Follow this up with a quick literature search to see what has been done in relation to your research idea. Then, pursue it.
Make new connections. With conferences online and everyone overworked, the idea of making a new research connection might seem daunting at best, but it might be just what your research needs. Collaborations between researchers across institutions and disciplines can allow you to conduct new and exciting research even if you don’t have all of the tools you need to do so at your disposal.
– First, make a list of the assets you can provide. (For example: Do you have startup funds you could use to pay online participants? Are you currently able to collect in-person data? Do you have access to a unique population? Do you have statistical skills that could be of use?)
– Then, reach out to a colleague or two that you have always wanted to work with, and ask if they would be interested in a brief meeting to discuss each other’s research. (Personally, I like to make these happy hour meetings!) If you don’t have anyone in mind, think about some of the authors of your favorite papers, or people you have met briefly at conferences, and reach out to them to see if they are interested in discussing research and potentially collaborating with you. Although it would be useful to have a few project ideas sketched out, you don’t need to have a research project in mind – often, chatting with another researcher about what they have ongoing, and discussing what you have ongoing, leads to discovering an interesting research question. I know very few researchers who wouldn’t love to spend an hour talking with another researcher about new ideas right now.
Focus on science communication. Many have lamented that scientific communication was poor in 2020. Do your part to improve scientific communication to the public. Spend some time thinking about how to distill your research findings into lay person’s terms, and figure out how to share your findings with those that would benefit most from learning about them. Blog posts and social media outlets are great ways to do this, but don’t limit yourself to these more traditional methods. Try to be creative. For example, if your research is exceptionally beneficial to parents of young children, maybe you could post a flyer about the results on a message board at a local park as well. You never know who might stumble upon your research when you put it out into the world in an approachable way – it might just lead to a connection that sparks your next research project.
Overall, if your new year isn’t quite off to the start you’d imagined, try not to be too hard on yourself. Doing good research is difficult in the best of times – burnout is real, imposter syndrome is rampant, and academia isn’t set up to foster the mental health of scientists. In these current times, which very well might feel like the worst of times, it’s important to remember that you are doing important work and that you deserve to be here. If you’re searching for a work-related 2021 resolution, consider resolving to rekindle your passion for answering new questions. Hopefully, using one of these tips will lead to just that.