I could not find any guidelines on how to plan¹ and conduct a research project. Because it seems like when I have just a goal, i.e., a specific hypothesis to check, and passion in the beginning, the passion go away in a while, and without a specific plan and deadlines, I start digging into every little problem or new field of study and often reformulating the initial hypothesis accordingly. In the end, I just have a bunch of partially read papers and not-working or partially working tests or proof-of-concept code that gives me some insight into how things work (if I was lucky enough), but does not lead to any publishable results.

Why can’t I just “focus on checking a single hypothesis”? Well, because in most cases first implementation does not seem to work at all, so what I do is just keep reading stuff and testing subroutines or sub-hypotheses – and never end up in having an entire thing working.

(I'm a grad student only, so I do learn a lot of stuff still)

tl;tr: is there any “GTD: researchers guide”?

¹ not pro forma, but rather to keep on track

2 Answers 2


At least for me, writing a research plan was very useful for my actual research. I found this article helpful: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2002_07_26/nodoi.4611149009600202486

The book "A PhD is not enough" has some good advice for writing research plans as well.

The introductory chapters to the book "An Introduction to Scientific Research" by E. Bright Wilson will probably be helpful to you too. Specifically the advice on literature searches is good. Start with general accounts (encyclopedias or survey articles), and then move to research papers. Advice from experts in your field is usually (but not always) helpful. Applying new methods to old problems can be fruitful, although in the long run it is better to be problem oriented; ie to aim to attack specific problems by whatever means necessary.

Polya has several books on problem solving that are quite good, but fairly general. "How to Solve It" is definitely worth reading, and "On Mathematical Discovery" is very interesting as well. You should definitely look at the first chapter of "Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning"---it's short and free on archive.org.

Another general piece of advice when carrying out your plan is to try to make a minimum working example/prototype. Avoid prematurely optimizing and instead cut the shortest path towards something that works. (Think like this: to get to high ground, always walk in the steepest direction; to prioritize the steps in your plan, look for the fuzziest parts, or the parts that would kill your argument.)

You'll probably waste a lot of time and explore a lot of dead ends, although later on that experience might prove useful.

If you feel aimless, try to discipline yourself to use a notebook and state your hypothesis explicitly, then record the essential facts of your plan to test your hypothesis/solve your problem etc. It's important to record your intentions and try to make your hypotheses explicit, so that you don't keep exploring the same dead end. Pretend you're doing lab work, even if you're not.

Anyway, these are a few things that I found helpful from time to time. Good luck! Keep at it :)

  • 1
    Also, collaborating with others, making a reading group, etc. can help with motivation.
    – bmurph
    Dec 18, 2015 at 5:06

Some good advice is in The Craft of Research by Booth, Colomb and Williams, though oriented more towards Social Science and Humanities.

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