How to Brainstorm Your Way to Perfect Research Topic Ideas
4 minute read
Choosing the perfect topic for a research project can feel overwhelming. While having the complete freedom to choose is exhilarating, it also presents infinite options. How do you narrow them down and find what's best for you? Ideally, you want a research project you’re eager to do while still being realistic for your time frame and limited resources. And wouldn’t it be amazing if this project could somehow impact the real world? Brainstorming can help you gather your thoughts and reveal which direction to follow. In this post, we’ll show you how to brainstorm to unleash new possibilities and piece together a project topic you can’t wait to start researching.
Before we go through the brainstorming process steps, let’s define what it is. Brainstorming is free-associating as many ideas as possible while deferring judgment. Advertising executive Alex Osborn began brainstorming with his team in the late 1930s to develop more creative marketing campaigns. Since then, government, academic, medical, tech, marketing, and creative professionals have all used the process to innovate and overcome challenges with novel solutions.
Some groundbreaking examples of products and solutions that are a direct result of brainstorming include: Post-it Notes, developed by scientists at 3M after a weak adhesive was deemed a failure (and incidentally, many teams use sticky notes to jot down ideas while brainstorming); the iPhone, developed as a way to combine an iPod, phone, and the internet; gMail; the Netflix personalized recommendation algorithm; CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology; and the MRI machine. Crowd-sourced brainstorming platforms now exist to help scientists and designers solve complicated problems together.
While brainstorming is particularly fruitful when you work with others (since your ideas may trigger something unexpected in someone else and vice versa), you can also brainstorm alone. The most crucial aspect of brainstorming is the act of withholding judgment. By allowing yourself to generate as many ideas as possible from many angles, you push yourself past the obvious and break into unchartered territory. We’ll give you specific exercises you can use to generate tons of ideas. The more idea options you have, the higher your chances of finding an exceptional one. While brainstorming is flexible, it follows a structured format, which gives you a comforting framework for idea generation. It also helps you keep your thoughts organized and maximizes the efficiency of each session.
Here are some questions to help you determine your goals:
What have I always wanted to know more about?
What is an issue that affects my community?
Are you looking to solve a problem? What is that problem? Who or what are you trying to help?
Are there skills you have that you want to use or develop further?
What types of things would you like to learn?
Thinking about scope and limitations will mostly come in handy after you brainstorm when narrowing down your options. Some people wait until after brainstorming to do this step. But it can also help guide your brainstorming to be as specific as possible if you consider the question before you start. Say you want to help solve global warming. Your research project idea will need to be much more specific if you only have six months to complete the project.
Now get a lay of the land. Look at other students' research projects in your field of interest. Pursue lists of passion project ideas for high school students. The aim here is not to use the ideas you find verbatim but to get a sense of what’s possible. It is difficult to do something unique, but you can always find a way to push an idea further with your original questions or by combining two or more things that haven’t been combined before (e.g., the iPhone combining the internet, phone, and iPod).
Now that you’ve done some preliminary thinking about your goals and limitations, and check out what other people are doing in your chosen field of interest, it’s time to run a brainstorming session. Here are some tips and exercises for making this session more productive.
Choose your focus: Clearly define the topic or problem you want to brainstorm. Having a specific focus helps channel your thoughts and ideas. See step 1.
Create a quiet environment with the tools you need to capture your thoughts best: Find a quiet and comfortable space where you can concentrate without distractions. You can use lots of different tools for capturing your thoughts: a pen and notebook; Google doc;, a chalkboard you can take pictures of; a voice recorder; or whatever works best for you. The important thing is that you can capture all of your thoughts, even the ones you’re unsure about.
Set a time limit: Allocate a specific time for your brainstorming session. A set time helps maintain focus and prevents overthinking each idea. About 30-60 minutes is a good range. It gives you time to get warmed up without feeling rushed if you start to feel like you’re on a roll.
Defer your judgment: Let yourself be as free with your ideas as possible, even if they seem unrealistic or too wild. As long as the idea is relevant to your topic or problem, don’t worry about cost or timing.
Aim for as many ideas as possible: Shoot for 100 ideas. Go for quantity over quality. The pressure to develop more ideas will overpower your self-consciousness, and you might even surprise yourself with newfound creativity.
Once you’re ready to go, you can use one or a combination of the exercises below to generate many ideas. Remember, quantity breeds quality.
Free writing exercise: Start by jotting down any and all ideas that come to mind, no matter how unconventional or unrelated they may seem. Don't worry about organization or structure at this stage.
Mind mapping: Create a mind map by placing your main topic or problem in the center and branching out with related ideas, subtopics, and potential solutions. This visual representation can help you see connections between different ideas.
Use prompts: Ask yourself guiding questions related to your topic. For example, "What are different ways to approach this problem?" or "What are the potential benefits of this idea?"
Reverse thinking: Imagine the opposite scenario or solution. Sometimes, considering the inverse can lead to creative insights.
Role play: Put yourself in different roles or perspectives related to the topic. How would someone else approach the problem? Role-playing can lead to fresh viewpoints.
Combine and modify: Look at your list of ideas and see if you can combine or modify them to create new concepts.
Incubation period: If you're stuck, take a break and come back to your brainstorming later. Often, taking time away from the problem can lead to new insights because your brain will keep working on the problem subconsciously. You may even start to observe new relevant ideas and references out in the world after a session that you can add in your next brainstorming session.
No matter which brainstorming exercises you decide to do, be sure to capture every idea you generate - every single one, even if it seems impractical. Sometimes, seemingly unrelated or outrageous ideas can lead to the most innovative solutions.
After you’ve got your list ideas, review and prioritize them based on their feasibility and potential impact. This is when you’ll look back at steps 1, 2, and 3. Which ideas best match your goals? Which of them seem possible given your time frame and resources? Can you tweak any of your ideas to make them better fit your scope and goals? Have your ideas already been done by someone else? Can you modify it to give it a different spin?
Brainstorming can help you unlock great ideas in a very condensed amount of time. To recap the process:
Give yourself a limited time frame
Focus on one topic, withhold judgment
Aim for quantity - capture ideas no matter how crazy
Pick and choose your favorites
Brainstorming on your own can help you hone in on a great idea. Talking ideas through with people who are knowledgeable in your area of interest can also really enrich the process.
If you need more help defining your focus for a research project, the Pathfinders career path and passion project discovery program at Polygence is an excellent option. Middle and high school students who enroll in Pathfinders are paired with three research mentors who are experts in the same, related, or different fields (you choose). You can ask them specific questions and float ideas by them. A final meeting with a Polygence guide helps you connect the dots of your interests and guides you toward concrete next steps.
The Polygence Pathfinders Program
Pathfinders is a career discovery mentorship experience designed to help you explore different career paths and gain more clarity about your future. Learn from three world class mentors in the fields of your choice and discover your passions!