Something scary

Oct 30 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

10 responses so far

  • melissa's says:

    So true!I just started my tenure-track appt, and honestly the grant-writing, class-teaching, grad-student-mentoring, etc. aspects of the job are not intimidating to me. But the Big Idea! I am responsible for bringing something original to the table, something ideally that only I can do (or I can do better than the dozens of well-established PIs in my field). Chilling.One thing I can add is the added scariness that, after a worthy Idea has been identified and thought out, it must be executed and of course Big Ideas often look great on paper but.... And the grad students who are about to join my lab are going to help me execute this Big Idea. So not only is it my career and reputation staked on this Big Idea, but also their careers and daily life for the next 4-5 years. I hope it doesn't keep them up at night, but I worry about that a lot...

  • tideliar says:

    Excellent post mate. Somewhat like this occured to me a while ago. I realised a couple of years into my postdoc that I wasn't get to make it to PI. I wasn't getting the publications, or the support I needed. My own PI was competing against me (he's that kind of knob) and so, although i was a more than competant experimentalist, and knew my field well, I didn't have a sense of the Big Picture I wanted to study, nor the publication background to prove that I could, if I had something to study!So, i decided to change the focus of my career and I'm now enjoying being in the vabguard of what I think will be an increasing number of professional scientist/administrators... wait... there's a blog post here...Blogger's new config means you can't cut and paste from the comments box, which is as annoying as fuck. Check out my blog for more thoughts on this later...

  • Anonymous says:

    Wonderful post. A couple weeks of worrying huh? I think that it was closer to about 2 years for me. It hit hard before the 2nd interview, then the 3 months before starting the job, then for about the 1.5 years of the job (I'm sometimes surprised that they hired me based on how vague or unoriginal my research plan was). Now, almost at the end of year 3, the new big ideas are growing gradually clearer. Neither is funded (aside from startup), and one is yielding great new data. In fact, I still am pursuing at least one idea that is different but could be seen as a "derivative" of my old lab. But you know? Even the old stuff has turned out to be more interesting than anticipated and is growing up to be new, different stuff, too. Having people working in the lab, telling me what's working and what's not has probably made the biggest impact on me.

  • Anonymous says:

    You've hit the nail on the head with this one. I am surprised more people haven't responded. My current work is closely related to my second postdoc, the allure of big funding has kept me in an area that isn't my biggest passion in life (but is very cool nonetheless). The question is how long do you persist with your research avenue without getting funding. The responses to your grants seem very positive so it appears you are on the right track and it will only be a matter of time. Let's see how you juggle it with a teaching load. You think you're busy now....

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Post quality is a poor indicator of response, but I'm glad that I'm not the only one that struggled with this. It's daunting and certainly has more consequences than just one's own research direction.If you're asking me how long I will continue to push my projects until I get funding, I think the answer is as long as it takes. Obviously, I'll need to start proposing other ideas if I get trashed in each review, but I don't feel like I'm in that position at the moment. I have one grant that is in for a third time, which I will need to rethink if it doesn't get funded, but the others are either pending or have only been in once. Let's see how you juggle it with a teaching load. You think you're busy now....Good to know that some readers are here to watch me squirm 🙂

  • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Great post. I love the comment of looking for the middle layer - I never quite got past the nitty gritty detail layer!

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