Over these six weeks as a Summer Science Fellow with the APA, I'll be attending a series of professional development sessions. Last Thursday, Dr. June Tangney, who specializes in criminology, led a session on how to form a research question, where to begin looking for relevant work on the topic, and how to plan writing lit reviews or introduction sections.
The first, perhaps non-obvious, tip is to simply start noticing what topics capture your interest and to keep an idea notebook. The goal of keeping a notebook is so that you can gain a sense of what kinds of ideas or topics you would enjoy exploring.
Once you have an idea of what topic (broad area of research, e.g., addiction) you want to study, conduct a literature review to learn about what the topic encompasses and what are the current opinions in the field about that topic. A good tip is to select articles that match where you are in the process of developing your research question. When you only have a broad idea of what you want to study, look at review articles, rather than detailed empirical studies. Handbook chapters on the topic are also useful.
Reading literature on the topic should help you develop a research idea, which consists of at least two constructs (e.g. creativity and memory). At this stage in the process, it helps to look at review articles that are more focused, as well as a few empirical articles. Finally, when you have fleshed out a research question that is testable based on your idea (e.g. does working memory capacity affect creativity?), it is time to start digging into more focused empirical studies.
Not All Articles/Chapters Are Created Equal
3 Stars: Absolutely relevant to the topic/idea/question. Must read.
2 Stars: 3-4 articles that are definitely relevant, but from are from not-so-great journals.
1 Star: Everything else. Read if you have unlimited time on your hands.
Great! Research Question! ....Now What?