The Research Process: Identifying the Ideas that Motivate You

Hello to all the EWED readers! I’m Dr. Darwyyn Deyo, an Assistant Professor of Economics at San José State University and a Visiting Scholar at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation. I research law and economics, occupational licensing, and the economics of crime. I would also like to thank Joy for inviting me to write some blog posts this summer! I’ll be writing a series of posts about the curriculum of the research process, from the initial idea to the development of a complete draft. This week, I’m focusing on the mechanics behind choosing that initial idea.

Sometimes, it can feel there are infinite topics which apply to economics. As scholars, it can also feel like there are infinite topics which we can research (and which we can talk about at parties!). I have found that although one’s motivation on a particular project may wax and wane, if you care about the central topic, you will always come back to it. To paraphrase from Bob Lucas, it is difficult to think about anything else when one starts to think about the research topic you really care about.

However, identifying your research topic is just the first step in determining whether that particular idea is worth pursuing. There are three important questions to consider first:

  • Does the answer to the question matter to anyone else? This is an important consideration when your goal is to publish your research. Sometimes, it’s just you. Not many people are very interested in my idea about the role of property rights in Lilo & Stitch.
  • Does the question answer a gap in the literature in a meaningful way? We can spend significant amounts of time pursuing answers to questions which are technically sophisticated but the application of which go no further. Your time is valuable; make it count.
  • Is answering the question feasible? There are some questions which you could spend your entire life trying to answer, and they come at the opportunity cost of answering other questions with shorter time horizons. This is especially important before you have tenure!

For most research questions, however, the issue is not whether there is data available. There usually is data available, and there are many research grants which specifically support paying for data. Starting with the idea, and not just the dataset you have on hand, allows you to build a more robust research agenda.

To illustrate this process, consider the example of my research on the effects of occupational licensing. First, about 23 percent of American workers need an occupational license for their job, and many more people face barriers to entry in these labor markets, limiting employment opportunities and raising costs for consumers. Answers to questions about licensing could affect countless people. This creates an opportunity to move the conversation: as scholars, we can demonstrate why the issue matters and why it is interesting.

Next, it was notable to me as a doctoral student that, although there were many articles on the wage and employment effects of occupational licensing, relatively little research at the time had been done on whether licensing actually protected public health and safety, and on its other indirect consequences. There was a gap in the literature that I and others have since worked to address. We can best do that when we are genuinely motivated about the issue, which is generally easy when the answer matters.

Finally and importantly, answering questions on this topic is feasible, as evidenced by the 2021 Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation Emerging Scholars Conference which is taking place this coming week. Scholars do routinely complete research projects in this area. You may also find that your literature review leads you to future research colleagues.

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