When I was in grad school, one of my advisors introduced me to a neat way of organizing preliminary research ideas for a productive discussion. I’ve used it with students ever since.

The idea is to write a fake “paper abstract” for each research idea as though it were a finished paper. Of course this abstract will be missing results but that’s ok. The key components of a good paper abstract are (1) what the paper does, (2) how it does it, and (3) why it’s important. Do this before you start seriously analyzing data (but after you verify that appropriate data exist).

Here’s why adopting this approach can be really helpful.

  1. If you haven’t figured out the three components listed above, chances are your advisor (or any prof you talk to) will not be able to help you in a meaningful way. Trying to write a fake abstract can be a good self-check to see if you have more work to do.
  2. With those three component at hand, a professor in your field can judge whether the paper is likely to be good or not (and suggest ways to improve the proposed approach or motivation). Such fake abstracts can also give inspiration to discussion about other, related ideas.
  3. Once you have the three key components, the abstract should also be fairly easy to write (aim for <500 words). So you will not spend a lot of time writing up an idea that goes nowhere.
  4. It’s much easier to cold-email professors you don’t know with a pdf containing a few fake abstracts. They’re fast for us to read and evaluate than something very long or very vague. And it’s much more exciting to meet with a student who’s taken some time and effort to prepare.
  5. The “fake abstract” stage is the right stage to run your ideas by professors. You are much less likely to spend a lot of time on an idea that doesn’t go anywhere. Yes, even getting to this stage takes time, but many students wait longer than this and waste a lot of time on a project that has low ex-ante potential.

Most early-stage ideas don’t turn into papers, so I suggest gathering several of these before each meeting. Get a professor’s thoughts on each one and then pursue the most promising idea (unless it seems like the most promising thing to do is to come up with new ideas, which has certainly happened to me!). Repeat as often as needed!

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