One thing I haven't heard discussed much, but which seems to be the most important thing of all, is project ideas. This is all coming to a head for me as a prepare my first grant proposal with me as lead PI. It is for an award that asks about your general research directions rather than a specific project.
In my Ph.D., developing project ideas seemed impossible. I spent my whole first year generating them only to find that others had published them before or they were hopelessly impractical. Finally, with the help of my two advisors, we hit on something that everyone liked and I went to work. Because my idea was fairly big picture there really weren't too many opportunities for corollary projects, and I pretty much concentrated on achieving that one goal. There were a few things I wanted to do, but time, the feelings of my advisors, and money did make this practical.
In my postdoc, the general themes were mutually agreed upon by my advisor and myself at the beginning of the project, but since arrival I have almost complete freedom. I have got some great work going on a rather solid premise, and am now coming up with creative twists for high impact side projects. My postdoc is actually coming along very well and I am really excited about what I will publish before leaving here.
You would think that I am fairly comfortable with my research ideas. So why is it that the prospect of being judged solely on the tenor of my own ideas is so frightening. If the grant doesn't get funded, does that mean that my academic career is doomed? Obviously not, but it can certainly feel that way.
I actually have several interesting directions for future research, but I have trouble distilling everything into an overarching theme. I feel pulled in a couple really great directions and am pretty sure that once I settle down everything will come together, but settling down is so difficult. And the trouble is that you are really judged on the quality of your research, which is directly linked to the problems that you tackle and your method of approaching them, and you only have 6-7 years to prove yourself. So project ideas are SO important.
A couple of days ago Young Female Scientist posted a link to a really interesting essay. She was primarily chagrined by the authors comments that you can do great science or change the system, but not both. Nonetheless, I think this is a great essay. The author recommends spending an afternoon a week thinking about the big picture in your field. I have been doing something like this for some time, but in the last few months it got away from me. So I went out to lunch last Friday just to contemplate my field, and the juices started flowing, and I got more really great ideas. [that are probably impossible for me to actually do.] The thing is out of all the ideas generated over the last year (about 30-40) only 3-4 are any good. I guess you only need one good idea, but it is a lot of work! Of course all of this just feeds into my fear of being unsuccessful. I'm taking some deep breaths and getting back to my work. Wish me luck on the grant!