A constant struggle for most graduate students is how to clearly lay out research ideas in a coherent manner. We are constantly in the "weeds" reading papers, move data around, running models, and researching tiny little details. When we decide to come up for air and begin to talk about our ideas they are unorganized and unclear. We assume people know what we are talking about and so we talk right past them.

So my question is, how do you clearly and coherently lay out research ideas?

Are there books to help with this, or other resources? Are there ways to overcome this challenge as a researcher?

4 Answers 4


Big ideas

  • Think about breaking your big ideas down into manuscript ideas--what would be the focus of each paper you could potentially write? This helps to break big-picture research topics down into both manageable and focused sub-topics, and will help you plan the even smaller research steps needed to achieve the bigger goals.

    • So for example, if my big grand research question is "Why are all my houseplants dying and how do I save them?" I could foresee breaking that into manuscripts:
      1. Review of common houseplants with compiled statistics on hardiness, common stresses, etc. and development of new quantitative metric for normalized houseplant stress level
      2. Experimental results of houseplant responses to induced stresses
      3. Application of a new methodology for protecting houseplants from common stresses.
  • Similarly, break your smaller sub-projects down by what results you'd like to attain (e.g., figure comparing x and y as a function of z, calibrated equation describing x(z), etc.), then plan your work around reaching these goals.

  • Keep your notebooks organized according to these big ideas (e.g., Plants Notebook).

  • The front page of each of my notebooks is a running to-do list of things that are relevant right now, which I try to review and update at least once a week.

Smaller ideas

  • Make sure your smaller ideas fit in under your larger research goals/plans above, and record your ideas in the appropriate subject notebooks

  • Keep a "parking lot" notebook for your random thoughts and ideas that might not be tractable/relevant right now but might someday be useful.


  • I like to use a digital notebook app instead of a paper notebook to keep things organized since you can move text around as needed... my old paper notebooks are full of notes on different topics all mixed randomly so it's hard to find them again, and relevant notes are often in very different places. You can keep different notebooks for different topics, but I've found it's still hard to keep things organized and the topics themselves often evolve over time.

  • Go back occasionally and re-read/reorganize/rewrite your old notes. This is especially facilitated by using digital notebooks because it allows your notes to be more of an actively updated list of relevant things you're working on right now (for the most part), rather than a bunch of disjointed things you randomly wrote down way back.

  • In addition to (digital) notebooks for each subject I'm researching, I also keep notebooks for seminars/conferences/meetings/workshops (since they're often on random topics unrelated to my research), administrative/proposals, outreach, teaching, classes, and papers (notes on papers I've read). Any info in one of these that's also relevant to a research project, I'll copy over to that subject notebook (this is a little clunky and would be easier if I could find a notes app that lets you cross-reference or alias pages to multiple notebooks...).

  • Great answer! Organizing notes and ideas is certainly a struggle when using paper notebooks. What notebook app do you use to organize notes?
    – Amstell
    Sep 26, 2017 at 19:36
  • I use Goodnotes, but I've also heard good things about Notability and have considered switching over. I'm sure there are many other good ones out there though. Might be a whole other question topic...
    – Dandan
    Sep 26, 2017 at 21:16
  • @Dandan that app is the only thing that I miss my iPad for. I currently use a Windows 2 in 1 tablet and the applications are pretty bad compared to the ones that support Apple.
    – padawan
    Sep 26, 2017 at 23:51

Once I had an informal discussion with my supervisor and few of my peers regarding this. Even I had this question looping over my head many a times. This is the experience from my side.

  • We read a lot of papers, on an average at least a paper per day. Create a log in your machine or your research log book; that contains details about one line summary of the research paper that you read. This helps in concrete understanding on the paper. Yes of course, none can fully understand the paper, but that is how it is. You will see that you are getting better at it with time. -- This will help also in expressing ideas.
  • New ideas are often seem unclear the very first time. But get refined. Try to express ideas not with English sentences first, rather with demonstration. Then, try to summarise the demonstration in sentence.
  • Your idea should express the following: (1) What is the problem, (2) In which portion of the problem solution, your idea fits in, (3) Is it new or an improvement of earlier ideas, (4) Would it produce a good solution, (5) How to formalise it, (6) How to implement it, (7) What are the concrete set of tools to be utilised.
  • Most important is "Can you divide your idea into smaller ideas?" -- If yes, it solves all problems during laying out the big idea.

Hope, this helps!

  • 1
    Thinking about a one line summary for research papers is a great idea.
    – Amstell
    Sep 26, 2017 at 19:37

Whilst not being the exact answer you are looking for, properly defining research aims and objectives may help you in your endeavour.


Similar to about anything in life, practice makes perfect.

The lack of clarity while explaining an idea to others is mostly because you never do it before you do it. In my case, while reading papers and thinking to myself, the ideas become extremely clear. But then when I want to discuss it with my collegues, I just can't proceed. My descriptions are flawed, my arguments have no supporting arguments etc.

When we discuss frequently with my colleagues, after two or three sessions, at least one idea becomes more clear, and finally turns into a good research problem.

Also, my former supervisor used to tell me

We, scientists, frequently daydream. So many of us have a 200 page notebook filled with so called ideas. They are just wrong things on the way of finding the right research direction.


  • Frequent discussions with your collegues, and keeping small notes about meetings.
  • Keeping a log of research ideas, and frequently discarding them.
  • Repeating the process untill a research topic is found.

might be the best way to go in my humble opinion.

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