Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, August 01, 2008

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.


At 11:14 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a grad student whose advisor didn't have confidence to say, "Yeah, this project isn't working. Let's try a new thing that does work." I say, tell that to your student as soon as you're feeling it. Especially in the sense of it doesn't have to be shelved indefinitely.

In my case, I started on something that was supposed to work. I'm working in a rather complicated system with a bunch of variables. I wasn't comfortable enough in the variables to got to battle with my advisor. Now, five years on, I've worked on two other projects and am writing up the big one I was stuck on for 2 years. It is totally apparent to me that this project is a really really shitty project for a new grad student who didn't have much confidence. Ah well, live and learn right?

At 1:46 PM , Blogger Candid Engineer said...

This is a tough question without knowing the details of the situation. I came from a fairly successful grad lab with several people's projects leading to big name publications. In all but one case, these grad students struggled significantly before hitting breakthroughs around the beginning of year 4. I certainly dealt with a lot of failure before things worked out for me.

For example, if you are developing a biomaterial, you might have to go through a zillion iterations before finding the one formulation that jives with your system. Of course, sometimes it is obvious that a technique just isn't working. If you know why your experiments aren't working, and you know you can't get around it, I don't see any problem with starting on another project.

With a grad student, I think you need to hedge your bets. Unless you are sure that the original project won't work out, I would encourage the student to continue working on the original project, but maybe only half time. The rest of his or her time should be devoted to developing the new idea. What does your grad student think of this, anyway? Has s/he become autonomous enough to determine her/his own course of action?

At 4:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has been 2 years that I joined grad school and for these past 2 years I have been with my first advisor. The project just does not seem to work. I tried making changes into the project and wanted to look at other facets of the project but my advisor was not interested. Soon we started having trust issue.He thought I am not working hard enough and my life became hell. I stopped checking mails or taking coffee breaks, because he kept telling me I am not working, either I am in front of the computer or on the phone. So am I not supposed to pick up a call? It's not as if I am yapping away to glory.... The final straw came when my wife got seriously ill and had to be taken to the E.R. I mailed him everyday letting him know what the situation was, yet the day I came back to work he sent me a Memo, berating me for not having my work done.
I have now decided to leave him as we are now having major trust issues and the project seems so stupid now. The only issue is I may have change my department as my department does not have any open positions for a grad stdt.That will mean doing something very new. Even to changing my area of study completely. I am wondering is it wise?


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