Hello there bloggies! Welcome to Trainee Tuesday!

One of the biggest decisions grad students and postdocs have to make is choosing which project or projects they will be working on during their training. For the next few years, this project will define the success, happiness, and future. Thinking and working on this project will take over a significant portion of a trainee’s life.
So, choosing suitable projects is incredibly important. Picking the “right” projects can lay a solid foundation for your research career, facilitate a beneficial mentorship with your PI, and help maintain your own mental health and sanity. The “wrong” project can lead to countless days of frustration, little progress, and inadequate training.

Here are some things I think are important to keep in mind when deciding on dissertation and postdoc projects:

Be interested in your work!

That might sound obvious, but it’s important! No matter what, you will be spending oh so many hours working on these projects. Motivation can and will be hard to find at times, especially during these summer months or the holiday season. Having genuine interest in teasing apart the complex questions you are asking makes it so much more worthwhile and exciting to spend hour upon hour researching. It doesn’t feel like work. It actually becomes fun!

Not only should you be interested in your work, but so should your adviser. An excited, interested adviser is one that will spend time thinking about your work and trying to develop the projects further. His or her experience and knowledge can help transcend your work into something truly noteworthy.

Timeliness

Grad school and postdocs are temporary gigs. They are not supposed to last forever. It is something that grad students and postdocs need to be aware of from the start. When choosing projects to work on, trainees need to ask themselves critical questions. Can I finish this work and do it well in a timely fashion? Will I be able to graduate in the next few years with this as a dissertation project? If the answer is leaning toward the no column, then a giant red flag should be raised. Maybe this should be a side-project as opposed to your central thesis/fellowship project. The eternal grad student or postdoc is not a career path.

Show Productivity

Your training period is the start of your career in research or science. It will serve as the basis of your next position, the one after that, and so on. During grad student and postdoc, showing consistent productivity is a critically important way to build your scientific reputation, proficiency, and abilities. Many times in research, productivity is measured by publications, conference presentations, and fellowships.

So, when selecting projects to pursue, it is worthwhile to consider the publication and presentation potential of your work. How many publications/abstracts do you anticipate from this work? Any high impact ones? Could negative results be suitable for publication? Leaving your training without a publication can make life in research much more difficult in the short-term.

Learn something new

Something that grad students, postdocs, and PIs can frequently forget is that this period is a training period! Trainees need to be exposed to new techniques, ways of thinking, and fields. Learning new things is how scientists mature and become well-rounded, inter-disciplinary researchers that can independently conduct their own work. Doing the same research over and over again doesn’t challenge your scientific skills and make you grow as a researcher. In fact, it can pigeonhole you into a very specific niche that shuts out future opportunities. When choosing that project, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself some.

Deciding which projects to work on is never easy. Sometimes it feels like there is nothing you want to work on, and others there are simply fascinating projects popping up everyday. As a trainee, some care and forethought is needed in selecting the ones to work on. Remember, your goal is to graduate and leave your lab with the skills/resume needed to build a career. Have solid projects to protect yourself, but diversify your experience with more risky side projects that could result in something stunning.

Thank you for stopping Trainee Tuesday! What do you think is important to consider before picking a project? Let me know in the comments below or on twitter @DrFsThoughts.

See you all tomorrow for Wishful Wednesday!

-Dr. F

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