The popular view of research is that it produces answers. This is not untrue. If you need answers, research is going to help you find them.
The problem is that research also produces questions. In fact, it produces more questions than answers, which can have a big impact on your ability to publish and on your confidence that you are any good at this job.
You aren’t publishing answers
You don’t have to wait until the research is finished and you know what the answer is to publish. The purpose of publishing is to make a contribution to an ongoing debate.
That means the publications are defined by which debate you are contributing to and what you have to contribute to that debate. Your fear that you are publishing “the same thing” in more than one place is usually unfounded.
You are not responsible for following up every question that arises in your research.
Pick the topics you most want to work on. Pick the topics that will make a significant contribution to the debates you care most about. I like Liz Gloyn’s tips on how to do this. Basically, you need to keep track of all the possibilities but you don’t have to work on any of them right now.
Once you have a list of all those possible questions, you get to choose which ones to work on. You also get to decide that some of those questions, though interesting and likely to make a significant contribution, are never going to be worked on by you.
You can also keep the list in your back pocket (so to speak) for those times when a potential graduate student expresses an interest in working with you but doesn’t have a concrete idea for a thesis or dissertation project. You’re not going to force them to pick from your list, but you can definitely supervise those questions. Seeing the list might even inspire them to come up with a different question.
The value of the big picture
Stepping back occasionally to think about where this research is taking you, what choices you have about that direction, and making conscious choices about the direction you want to go is valuable.
Those who evaluate your work (promotion committees, grant adjudication committees, etc) usually want to see some kind of trajectory or coherent programme of research. While it is possible, and even common, to create such a narrative post-hoc, thinking about that trajectory can also help you prioritize your projects, collaborate more effectively, and generally get more done without burning yourself out.
Of course, when you do more work, you will alter your course. The trick is not to do it willy nilly but to periodically make conscious decisions about why and how you are altering your course.
I can help
Seeing the forest when you are down amongst the trees can be difficult. Talking the big picture through with someone else can make this project easier. This is what my Wayfinding service helps you with.
I have no stake in any of the evaluation processes you will face. I have no preference for which questions you pursue. I’m here to help you figure out what you want to do and how to get from where you are to where you want to be. Find out more by clicking the image.
Edited May 31, 2016.