Day: November 22, 2017

On Ideas

MC3 asked:

“Far too many candidates are indistinguishable in that they don’t have original ideas at all; instead, they regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences or in group meetings to be the next obvious steps.” I agree with this. But to be honest, I think the reason many people just regurgitate what they’ve heard at conferences and group meetings is because it’s really REALLY hard to come up with new, creative, and feasible ideas. So what about those of us–like me–who often find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to come up with original ideas? Does that mean we’re just not meant to be in science?”

I can’t say whether someone has a future in science or not without knowing them well.

But I know that sometimes people have ideas, they just don’t know that those are viable ideas or they overestimate how much novelty is needed for something to be considered a viable idea.

Often the best ideas come from picking on a scab that was formed over a question that hadn’t been successfully settled in a research area. If you are honest about what you do or don’t understand, you will find that there are things that everyone glosses over but they are far from understood. If you pull on that thread of the unknown, you can uncover a whole set of interesting questions.

Are you curious in general? Are you a person who enjoys talking about science with colleagues, listening to talks, meeting visitors? In general, ideas can form almost subconsciously if you provide your brain with enough varied input to chew on.

Follow your interests. If you are really, truly into something and are in the position to pursue it, then do so. Follow your gut.

Follow your gut, but also learn from those with more experience. Learn how to estimate how long things will take, whether they are a good use of your time, how much manpower is needed, how to predict potential pitfalls and what to do when they happen.

A few years ago, one of my then senior graduate students read a proposal and said something like, “Oh, this looks totally doable. I thought you would have to propose something much more out there.” We started talking about what a proposal is, that it’s not a pie in the sky, but work that builds on what is known in a logical, well-justified way. That it’s not just the crazy idea, but that you need to convince people that spending money on you is a good idea.

So if you wonder whether you have sufficient ability to generate ideas, ask yourself:

When you work as a grad student or postdoc, are you systematic about your work? Do you try to clarify every detail in your understanding? When your advisor asks you if you checked something, do you often find that you already thought of the issue on your own and checked it? These are good signs.

Do you enjoy listening to your lab mates present their work? How much do you know about your lab mates’ work? Would you be able to give their talk at a conference? (That’s an excellent exercise that I’ve been meaning to implement as training in my group — have students present each other’s work.) Building a broad base to your expertise is good.

When you go to a conference and listen to talks, do you feel like you have questions? Do you notice things that are unclear, or missing, or suspicious, or perhaps unusually insightful? Do conferences make your mind catch fire in the best sense? I often find that I have a lot of ideas after a good meeting.

Can you identify a good project the size of a single manuscript in a society journal? How about in a prestigious journal? Now can you identify a project the size of a typical grant in your field? A project is like a novel, where each paper is like a chapter. The project has to have an overarching idea, a set of coherently sewn together smaller questions, each answered within a small number of papers.

The unit of scientific communication is a research paper. Understanding what makes a paper, how much is enough for a paper, how to weave a paper-worthy scientific story — these are all key ingredients in starting to believe in your ability to generate ideas.

And, of course, some people are happiest when doing technical work within the context of a large project outlined by someone else. Such people are usually very detail oriented.  Others wouldn’t want to have anyone else tell them what is to be done, may prefer big-idea thinking (and selling those ideas) to in-the-trenches technical work; these folks, if they are creative and good at marketing, they can go far; otherwise, it can be tough.

Blogosphere, what do you say?