As I begin my academic career I find myself in a state of constantly reading papers. Of course, having a broad interest (often considered a good thing in academics) I always enjoy reading new papers that I find. The downside to this, however, is that I am much better at finding new papers to read than I am at actually reading them. I find myself constantly scrolling through my Google Reader RSS feeds for the newest stuff. Sometimes I will just Google Scholar a random search term (usually “food web” or “ecological network” or some such thing) to see if anything I’ve never seen comes up. My favorite, though, is that whenever I do read a paper I invariably decide that I should read (and instantly download) at least 5 new references, thinking to myself “Ooh that paper talks about that issue? I should read that!”
Anyway, I read a lot. Since I read a lot, I have had to come to terms with one of the most dissatisfying, disappointing, and also somewhat encouraging experiences in my academic career. When I read I think about the research and especially when it is within my current interest (networks) I tend to have sparks of insight and think “hey i finally have an idea for a research project, this is great!” Now comes the disappointing part…
So after I come up with this great idea I figure that I should follow up on it, and read some more papers for foundational knowledge. Now, 98% of the time as I read these new papers I realize (to my dismay) that these authors have written a paper that answers my allegedly brilliant research idea (five years ago). Another 1% of the time I will have this spark of insight, “someone should do this,” only to discover that hey, the authors apparently ALSO had this same thought and cover the problem on the next page. This has been one of the major problems with my coming up with a viable research proposal (there is a lot of competition out there in network research).
Now, this all sounds terribly depressing, but there is a silver lining that I have been able to find. I just finished my first year of grad school, and I am just starting my academic career. The scientists who are writing these papers are, for the most part, at least several years ahead of me in terms of education and experience. Thus I can rest secure in the knowledge that my ideas are good ones, because they are questions that other more experienced researchers are asking as well. So I must be thinking in the right direction.
And for those of you (few that stumble upon my blog) who are concerned, I have indeed settled on a research topic that no one else has already done.