Repost: Something Scary

Oct 29 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's time for Halloween again, so I thought I would dig out this post from last year about one of the scarier prospects facing many students and postdocs looking to get a TT job.

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.

6 responses so far

  • NatC says:

    This is truly scary - and extremely timely. I am grappling with this issue at the moment. Like you, I'm thinking along the lines of using a system that I learned to use during graduate school, and the techniques I've learned during my post-doc. My sticking point (for now) is the concept - technically this is a new approach to the question, but the concept isn't so different. I haven't really worked out where my own spin comes from, and the first part of the project sounds like a blend of my grad and PD training (which it is). On the other hand, I've had interest expressed in the idea already, so I also don't know how much that matters.

  • Dr Becca says:

    Awesome advice, PLS! For me, I got my "big idea" when I was writing my K99 last year. Being forced to think long-term about my work and the field in general got me to wrap my head around a problem in a new way, and thus, it was born. That was a year and a half ago, and the idea has morphed some since then, but I'm much happier with it now. It is exciting; I only hope I can wow hiring committees like you did !

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    That was a very useful post and I can imagine how scary it is to have to come up with a big idea that then becomes your research program.

    One part of my PhD training that I will always value is that both my supervisors gave me free reign to come up with a question and methodology for my PhD. In fact, one of my supervisor's, when I came to him asking for help, said, "No you need to do this on your own, after all you will have to come up with a research program someday." And the other said, "I'm not going to tell you what to do. It has to be your own idea and your own design." Although at the time, I panicked, now I'm really grateful for that push.

    I never would have deconstructed it the way you did in your post. But that was part of my process - I like to think of it as a coalescent approach to science! Because certain ideas or experiments go extinct along the way.

  • Chemprof says:

    This was my greatest fear when I was facing my first position as a PI. At that point I had one great idea that I even got funded (which helped me believe it was reasonably great at least) but I immediately realized that I needed more ideas to keep it going. For a while there I was worried that I would run out of ideas, and someone would realize I was a fraud.
    The good news is that never happened as this is science, and one idea just leads you to many more and before you know it you're not thinking in ideas but in 'research programs' and you're stuck with the equally difficult task of working out which ideas you even have time to follow.

  • [...] Here’s something scary that hematophage and eusociality are especially struggling with as newish graduate students: coming up with a Big Idea. [...]

  • Hermitage says:

    I have the fear on a smaller scale as I play my thesis project, which is a thin branch growing 200000 miles away from the tree trunk that is my PI's area of specialty. He has faith that I know what the hell I'm talking about and the idea I've come up with is interesting to the audience I say it is, and that is 100% terrifying. I can't imagine the night sweats I will (hopefully) get as a professor having to do this every day and then submit proposals to my peers to shit all over. Eep.

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