Choosing Research Projects for Your Lab
One of the most difficult aspects of starting up a new lab is deciding what to work on. It is tempting to stay with "safe" projects that are likely to work, but it is not these that propel you into the spotlight, or are likely to get the big $$$. On the other hand, working on a risky project may produce great results if you ever get it to work, and if it were easy, someone would already be doing it (and sometimes even if it is hard this is true).
My approach initially was to work on one high risk, high reward project and one "safe" project, hedging my bets. I also had several other, smaller project ideas that I put on the back burner. Some of these were published by other groups, some as time passed proved to be bad ideas after all, and some were and are still good. A few of these ideas I gave to undergraduate researchers as a method to diversify the lab's project portfolio without much risk. It is not catastrophic if an undergraduate fails, versus say a graduate student with a thesis riding on a project. The problem is that undergraduates have limited skills, and more importantly time. They can only take a project so far. So what happens when you have something that is sort of working, that you could give to a grad student, but you haven't written any grants to support it and haven't put much time into it? Do you take away from your main projects to support this side project?
An even more perplexing situation is what happens if a "better" main project comes along while you are still working on the previous one. One of the mistakes that I made starting up was to think that all the ideas I had at that moment, were all the ideas that I might have over the course of the next few years. As time has passed, I have come up with some great things, but I have already dedicated my resources to other projects and it is not fair to tell a student to stop working on one project, which has yet to produce papers or other tangible products, so that they can start working on a different project that is "better." I did try this once with an undergrad with fairly disastrous results. Neither project progressed very far and the "better" project turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought. (Isn't that always the case).
So now, I am being more cautious. You can't really hold resources back. I mean how would you tell a grad student not to work on something while you wait for the next great idea, but you can have them work on small pieces that position them for other potential projects later. I also continue to leverage my summer and undergrad students to try new things. But the real question I continue to face is, at what point do you abandon something that does not appear to be working for something "better" (that may not work either once you get into it)? There is a large emotional cost for the student to do this, but not doing it could be worse. How much "better" does the project need to be? How long do you need to try the thing that is not working before giving up? Hopefully these things will become more clear as time passes, until then, I have to go with my best guess.