This is how to find innovative research ideas, according to Donald Stokes

For many young researchers, finding the Big Idea to work on can be the most frustrating task: staring at the blank document, spending sleepless nights reading the leading journals and wishing for eureka moment that never comes, eventually losing hope and settling for the first tolerable idea…

Yes, we’ve all been there. But fear not, ex-Monash University professor Donald Stokes has some advice for novice researchers on how to generate innovative research ideas. Prepare your pen and paper and let’s get to it!

What is a successful research idea?

Donald Stokes says there are three key components to generating successful research ideas:

  • Passion (your excitement about the field of research)
  • Expertise (your knowledge on how to conduct the research)
  • Interest of leading journals (your understanding of what journals (and, therefore, their readers) are interested in)

Here is Don:

“We play at the intersection of the three where we are passionate, the journals are passionate and where we are trained to research. This is where we look for creative opportunity conditions available to us, apply approach conditions conducive to being creative and utilize thinking strategies to generate the ideas.”

So, let’s look at each of them in turn.

Opportunity conditions

According to Donald Stokes, there are three opportunity conditions that can help foster our inner talent (in our case, creativity). They are:

  • Parentage

Where you start in life is often where you end in life. This is a sobering conclusion from a study conducted by John Hopkins university. Unfortunately, we don’t have control over what society we are born into and thus what opportunities are presented to us, however, we can take advantage of available resources to develop our creative capacities.

  • Patronage

Mentors act like a role model, offering insights into the research process, career advice and emotional support. Don’t go into research alone – find a mentor to guide and inspire you.

  • Serendipity

Being lucky is a numbers game. You need to seize opportunities as they arise. Being at the right place in the right time with the right attitude will help you build the network of contacts and discover new insights.

Approach Conditions

Creating opportunities is half the job. Another half is seizing them. Here are four more factors to consider, according to Donald Stokes:

  • Values and attitudes

You need to be passionate about the field of study and motivated to spend countless hours neck-deep in the research. Embrace the uncertainty and learn to cope with setbacks, errors and brick walls.

  • Healthy Lifestyle

Diet, sleep and exercise. There is no way around it.

  • Effort

You reap what you saw. Commitment and dedication is needed to develop the expertise. So be ready to put in a lot of hours in developing your expertise.

  • Reward structures

Extrinsic monetary rewards are great. Intrinsic rewards are even better. Take time to think about what you find rewarding in research: Is it a greater purpose? A joy you feel when you finally “get it”? the recognition of your contribution? The autonomy of doing your own research?

For the lovers of TED talks, here is one on the topic:


Thinking strategies

Finally, we get to the “doing” part.  What strategies should we pursue to generate more high-quality ideas?

  1. Priming

It is important to fully immerse yourself into research. It is equally important to take breaks and do something different to prime yourself and create unconscious connections in thinking.

  1. Perspective

Sometimes it’s good to be an outsider looking in. Look at the problem you are interested in from someone else’s point of view: If I were a businessman (a politician / an environmentalist), what would matter to me?  Look at the larger scheme of things. Ask for opinion and advice of others.

This can help inspect old research questions under new light and even find new yet unexplored questions.

  1. Perceiving

It is important to not get stuck in your research. Do something new, expose yourself to new ideas and experiences. Don’t limit yourself to only research journals – writers often read outside of their preferred genre to come up with ideas and to look at problems differently.

  1. Playing

Playing is a low-risk FUN (!!!) activity to collaborate and develop our talents and skills. When we are having fun, we are fully engaged and enjoying ourselves, two things that are . Now enough reading, go play with your colleagues!

  1. Greening up the work environment

Evolutionary psychologists argue that green color is associated with abundance of water and food, thus making us peaceful and relaxed. There is evidence of including trees and flowers in the work setting being beneficial for idea generation.


To sum it up:

  1. Find a mentor
  2. Seize opportunities: be at the right place in the right time
  3. Fully immerse yourself in the research
  4. Look at the problem from different perspective
  5. Expose yourself to new ideas and experiences
  6. Take your time to play and have fun
  7. Green up the work environment

… and the ideas will come.


Here are 2 more links for curious readers:

  1. Original paper by Donald Stokes
  2. Pitching Research Template on the paper

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