In other words, trends don’t come from thin air—people define and set trends.
If you can’t be a trend-setter yourself (something that’s very tough to do as a Ph. student), it’s best to be on the early side of a trend, and looking upstream can be incredibly helpful for doing so.
Develop a secret weapon and look for nails to hit with your hammer.
Become a domain expert at something, or develop knowledge or resources that others don’t have.
Previous solutions to old problems may have assumed certain constraints about processing power, storage, the cost of memory, the set of prevailing applications or protocols, and so forth.
Yet, underlying technologies are continually advancing. A problem that was difficult to formulate or otherwise intractable five years ago might suddenly become solvable because old assumptions are now invalid, or because the emergence of a new technology (or algorithm) makes previously hard problems suddenly easier to manage.Before we begin our research careers, we experience structured training: we attend classes, read textbooks, and grind through problem sets in areas that might be called “established science”.In contrast, the research process appears completely unstructured—researchers create new ideas and discoveries, seemingly from nowhere.Short of setting your own trend, you can very easily look around and identify (and even predict! Reading conference proceedings to identify the zeitgeist is reasonable, but this might place you as an “also ran” in an area where most of the initial breakthroughs have occurred.A better place to identify trends, I think, is “upstream” of conferences.Once you have developed that secret weapon, you can use it to solve problems that others are not able to solve, or to develop solutions that others might not be able to think of.Once you have developed your secret weapon, you can begin to look for problems where you might be able to apply your unique knowledge, system, dataset, or expertise.Fortunately, there are reusable solutions to each of these challenges—that can help solve each of these problems.Below, I will propose some research patterns for each of these challenges that we commonly face in research. There are certainly mainly difficult problems to work on, some of which are worth solving as a researcher and others which are best left to others.From some apparently unstructured environment, the mythical process of research will produce new discoveries and knowledge.Picking a good problem is one important piece of the puzzle; as I have previously discussed, developing taste in research problems and learning how to identify good problems can take many years of experience (indeed, part of the Ph. process itself is gaining experience and research taste).