Some people ask: “what is your research agenda?” Ideally one could answer: “I want to understand this big picture question and here are the steps that will get me there … At the end I should have the following papers…”
If that works, great! It usually doesn’t. There are at least two reasons:
1. Until you have actually done a step in the plan, you typically have no idea what will come out (especially if the work has any empirical content). But what comes next depends critically on what you found before.
2. It is hard to come up with a good idea/question that can actually be done. It is darn hard to come up with a whole sequence of such ideas at a time.
Therefore, be realistic and take project ideas one at a time. Think of each dissertation chapter as one publishable paper. Don’t try to write a monolithic dissertation where one chapter leads cleanly to the next. It’s perfectly fine if your chapters are totally unrelated (although that’s usually not efficient).
The best approach is to not look for a topic. Just sit down and try to understand the answer to a question. Yes: a question! Good project ideas end with a question mark. Be suspicious of ideas like “we want to explore…” You need a question.
Anyway, at some point you’ll get the idea of what others think about the question of interest (or even of what interesting questions in a given area may be). Then simply ask: “Do I believe what I have read? Is it convincing?” Forget the fact that you are looking for a project. Just ask whether you believe what you have read. You will typically find that there are many shaky issues in the proposed answers. That’s where an idea is born. If you find something that is really unconvincing, it is an opportunity to do better.
Of course, in most cases it will simply be too hard to do better. Then you don’t believe that the existing findings are bullet proof, but they are still the best answers available. It is useful to keep these kinds of situations in the back of your mind. Perhaps you’ll see something later on that allows you to follow through with your idea after all.
Example: The migration literature argues about immigrant quality and earnings of immigrants relative to natives. But it’s very hard to figure out what’s really going on in all the data because we don’t have longitudinal observations. So there is a clear potential for improvement, but it’s not feasible because the data don’t exist. Write that down. Later on you find out about the German Socioeconomic Panel and the fact that it over samples guest workers. Perhaps one could use that data to address the open issues? (This is actually a project idea worth pursuing, not just a fictitious example.)
Disclaimer: We are sure there are reasonable people who vehemently disagree with our views on this.