Warning: Contains science content and rambling about thesis ideas.
One of the things I wanted to do with this blog was record how I am thinking and finding my way academically. Listening to older grad students talk about how they found their thesis idea has been interesting and helpful. I thought a similar record would be helpful both for other people going through the same process, for my own sanity, and so that I can articulate for myself exactly what I am doing and see what is working and what isn't.
Science, at the moment, is exciting. After half-heartedly embracing a topic idea I had come up with concerning the effect of invasive species on spring nitrogen retention in temperate deciduous forests (which I'd even written up and submitted for a grant), I decided that perhaps bigger ideas still lurked out there and went looking for them. My initial strategy of looking for literature and keywords surrounding topics I was already interested in wasn't so successful. I found and perused books on topics like organic nitrogen use by plants and frankly I wasn't feeling inspired. I think one of the biggest challenges of grad school at the moment is figuring out how to exposure yourself to ideas effectively and link things together in your mind. I've read plenty suggesting that attending seminars etc on a range of topics can be good for this, and while I've seen some great seminars, none have grabbed me or left me developing my own ideas (yet?).
What has worked (and an approach I am ashamed to admit I had ignored up until now as I didn't think it would work) is just scanning through the contents page of the most recent issue of a wide range of journals. My commitment to spend an hour or two each week just getting that week's journal updates has actually proved very successful. I stumbled across this article:
The Nitrogen Paradox in Tropical Forest Ecosystems- Hedin et al., 2010
and it's pretty much single handedly set my new direction. Turns out tropical legumes are amazing! I'm excited about everything I'm reading on the topic, frantically scribbling down ideas and looking forward to my next meeting with my advisor. At the moment I'm dealing with interesting concepts rather than a question per se, but it's exciting to have found something which is so intellectually stimulating. I would never have come to this point with my old approach. Yay!
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: Science is awesome. I am so lucky to be doing this. All those ridiculous self help/guide books that go on and on about how hard and depressing grad school is have got it wrong. I don't think anyone would be here if they didn't love what they were doing.