(image by Jan Tik)
I recently read a very thought-provoking article about the process of picking research projects to work on. This is a topic that's very important, yet is easily overlooked. So I thought I would post my thoughts.
What should our aim be in picking research projects?
It's important (perhaps even vital) to pick projects that are interesting to you. Not only is this sensible on a personal level (why would you want to work on things you don't find interesting?), but it's also hugely important on an academic level; if you can't enthuse, immerse yourself, even obssess about a particular project, you'll struggle to gain the very deepest levels of insight and your results will be less good because of it.
Research that addresses important questions should be our second aim. Imagine that you have a miracle year of research where everything you work on turns to metaphorical gold. Wouldn't you rather this effort went into curing cancer, producing a working theory of quantum gravity or solving climate change, rather than some minutae of an obscure branch of your subject? I've put interesting and important in this order, but I think the key point here is that you want to work on projects that are both.
These two considerations ought to be enough. Sadly, there are also practical considerations because of the realities of building a research career. It's probably prudent to work on at least some projects that will help you secure future funding and/or jobs. This is a tricky topic, especially if you're on fixed term funding (such as a postdoc) and you have a very limited amount of time before you need to find more funding from somewhere (and you might be employed to work on a specific project). Of course, if you're working on important areas of research then it should be a lot easier to sell yourself. But you need to make sure that the projects you're working on will produce some publishable results and material on which you can talk at conferences. Even one great piece of interesting work can have a huge impact here.
At the risk of a sweeping generalisation, many researchers end up working on safe-but-slightly-uninspiring projects. These types of projects can produce a steady stream of publications and to be fair they do often have some incremental scientific value, but I think it's a huge mistake to only work in this way. Our profession is one of creativity and knowledge discovery, so we should spend a proportion of our time working on ideas that are speculative, exploring new intellectual territory. Of course, many of these won't come to anything, but the occasional one that does might have a huge impact. There are scientists who have built stellar careers and created whole new disciplines with one (really, really good) idea.
And what do I think? I think that a deep fascination with your research is vital. Within that, pick the projects that are likely to be important (in both your and other people's opinions) - you might as well work on things that might have some impact. And beyond that, try to build a good CV but if you're doing the first two things well, this shouldn't be a problem.