This is one of the key questions in the career of a professional scientist. How do you come up with ideas? How do you choose which ones to pursue? A few people have impeccable taste for new projects and open up completely new research vistas more than once in their career: Andre Geim of graphene fame is one such example; Anthony Leggett, Pierre-Gilles De Gennes, and a two-time Nobel laureate John Bardeen (type-I superconductivity, transistor) also come to mind.
But let’s talk about us regular, mortal academics, who do good work and publish in reputable journals, and how we train our students to pick projects to work on once they are independent.
I have a couple of anecdotes from my advising past, and invite you to share your own in the comments.
Moving to a new field
Moving out of one’s comfort zone and into a new field can be intellectually invigorating and result in highly original and impactful work. As one colleague says, you have to read a lot, but not too much. You don’t want to read so much that you, too, get entrenched in the field’s cannons and lose the ability to think your own thoughts. But, there is such a thing as reading too little. It’s important to develop a real respect for the field, to learn about where the state of the art is and what the real open problems are.
Some time ago, a student who’d just started helping another former group member wrap up some papers came to my office full of ideas. The problem was, those ideas were clearly the first thing that popped into his mind and something that the field had dealt with decades ago. I tried to tell him as diplomatically as I could that those ideas were likely correct, so he was obviously getting what he was reading, but that the ideas were simply not novel enough or interesting enough to people right now, as the field had moved way past simple, quick-and-dirty models to much more sophisticated and accurate approaches and the cutting edge now lay elsewhere. He admitted that these were literally the first things that he thought of when he was only starting to read up.
Being a misunderstood genius… Or not
Each research group develops a specific style — not just in how they write and present their work but in how and why they choose the problems they tackle — and the style is strongly influenced by the group leader. I am not one who keeps students around for 8 years without a paper because I don’t want anything less than a Nature publication; far from it. Students in my group publish well, but there is definitely a bar to what I will agree is publishable with my name on it. There are colleagues in my general field who churn minimal publishable units that I never would, but I allow that it’s not just the question of their style or scientific taste; it may be an issue of external pressure related to salary, promotions, grants… Who knows? Basically, setting aside the stuff that I won’t work on because I think it’s misguided or wrong (hopefully nobody wants to work on that), there is also the stuff that I won’t work on because I think it’s too incremental, too boring (to me), or otherwise just not a good investment of effort and money (e.g., the field is moving too quickly for anyone without an army of postdocs).
Occasionally, I have a student who wants to do something that I don’t think is worth doing. We discuss the pros and cons and often the student agrees that something related but more “meaty” or otherwise clearly publishable would be a better use of their time. But, on occasion, a student is quite enamored of an idea that I don’t approve of (not because it’s wrong, but because it’s too small potatoes, or not very novel, or yes — boring science) and thinks that I am standing in the way of their genius; the student might become relentless about trying to publish this work I don’t approve of. This is when I do what I call, to myself and I suppose now to everyone who reads this blog, “polishing a turd for educational purposes” — give the student’s manuscript the best chance it’s got in terms of improving the text and layout and have the student submit the draft for publication in a venue that is suitable for the topic and type of work. I repeat until the end that I expect we will get creamed in review, as the work is just not complete enough or not novel enough, and sure enough, so far we’ve gotten creamed 100% of the time when I said that we would. Polishing a turd for educational purposes is not the best use of my time (I could be polishing an actual publishable paper or a new proposal instead), but the educational part is quite important — sometimes, this seems to be the only way to get a strong-willed student to see that if I cannot be persuaded of the importance and novelty of the submitted work, and I have a vested interest in publishing the work of my students, then it’s very unlikely that other people can. The PhD advisor is usually the first line of defense against overblown results; I’m not saying it can’t happen that the PhD advisor is totally wrong and the student is indeed a genius, but it hasn’t happened to me yet, and probably doesn’t happen very often in general.
(To be continued…)
Please share your own thoughts/experiences about choosing well or poorly what to spend your scientific energy on.