With Halloween this weekend, I thought I would post about something that recently scared the crap out of me: Coming up with my own Big Idea.
As a grad student and postdoc, it's essential that you are always coming up with your own ideas, but you have the net of working in a lab with an established theme and having lots of people around working on related things to bounce ideas off of. Then you start applying for jobs and have face the fact that you need to sell yourself on your own ideas. Some people might be able to leave their postdoc labs with projects of their own design are will continue working along those lines. That's great if you can pull it off and it will sure make your life easier. Of course, I didn't do that.
I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to take advantage of my fairly diverse training in order to come up with a novel research program to pursue, but coming up with an independent and exciting research direction is a daunting task. I had lots of ideas, but either they borrowed heavily from what I was doing at the time (and I didn't want to compete with my PDF advisor in my early career) or I wasn't excited by them. This went on for a couple of weeks. Reading. Thinking. Repeat. It sucked, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was going to end up either doing research that only slightly excited me and 6 other people in the world, or not doing research at all because no one wants to hire someone with boring ideas.
So, I took a different approach. I started thinking of it like a layered database, where the top layers were huge questions that could not be directly tackled and each successive layer below became more and more tractable from a research standpoint. You can't write a grant proposal saying you want to cure cancer, but you can say that you will use XX cell line to understand YY process with the ultimate goal of making headway towards treatments for a certain type of cancer. My problem was that I was looking at the top and bottom layer and couldn't connect them until I used this approach to think about it.
I started with a broadly-observed phenomenon that I was very familiar with from the work I was doing as a PDF and tried to figure out ways to explain how things transition between the normal and altered state. In order to do that, I decided to look outside the systems that people had used to make the observations and identify a system where the actual transition was ongoing. The search for the right system led me back to my PhD training, where I was introduced to a truly unique system that hadn't been worked on in years. With my question and system in hand, all I needed was methodology to make the observations I needed and do the experiments to test the system, much of which I had learned as a PDF.
In retrospect, it all makes sense but I can't tell you how many hours I spent trying to see how I could carve out my own scientific niche. And hell, I haven't gotten anyone to pay me to pursue these ideas yet, so they might still all be crap. But I do know for a fact that my questions and the unique system I am using to go after them had enough of a "wow factor" to make a big difference during interviews for a job.
That's just my experience, but I doubt I am alone in facing the daunting task of making a research program one's own. It's unbelievably scary to feel like you can't come up with the one original question that you will need to make your mark, but having a broad knowledge base and getting into some of the older literature is what allowed me to piece things together. It's an exciting time when you;re finally on to something that you can turn into a unique research program.