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choosing a research topic

So you’ve decided to do research and are wondering what to do it in. 

Two pointers that I picked up during graduate school are:

1) do research in something you are passionate about

and

2) do research in something that is important to the lay-person. 

Okay, so where do I get this from?  I ended up choosing my PhD topic because I found myself thinking about the topic at all hours of the day–watching T.V., at the gym, etc.  This served me extremely well.  When you are in a long-term research project, you are bound to hit bumps in the road.  And grad school can be one awfully bumpy ride.  People talk about the peaks and valleys but in four years I can count the number of peaks on one hand.  What kept me going through all of the valleys was my belief in the question I was trying to answer.  Finishing the PhD was secondary.  Sure you could power yourself through the hard times of research and the dark times of graduate school without necessarily having a great deal of passion for the research (e.g. some people choose a research lab only because of the PI).  And depending on what you get out of research, it may be worth it.  But I for one have seen too many good people leave/finish graduate school (or their research term) quite bitter and angry with the scientific process.  I didn’t understand why or how that could be until I went through it myself.  The one thing that kept me from heading down that dark path was the fact that I loved my project and believed in it (even though sometimes it felt like no one else did). 

Work on something that lay-people will understand and appreciate.  I don’t think this is critical like what I mentioned above (so don’t send me angry emails about it) and I offer this point more so as a consideration and a shout out to an old friend.  This point is important on two levels.  When I was a first year medical student, I hung out with a much older MD/PhD student in our program.  He was a really smart guy, quite talented and successful in the lab.  But, his research centered around how the two ends of a protein (no one had ever heard) interacted with each other.  He won many awards but lamented that he could not talk to his parents or even friends in different scientific fields about his work.  He once said that if you cannot tell your parents what you do in under 5 sentences, then that is a problem.  At the time I thought that this was not a valid argument–there are many important problems, which need to be solved that aren’t well known to most others.  But as I have thought about it over the last 6 years or so, I can see his point on some level.  For one, research funding in a lot of ways depends on getting lay-people (i.e. the taxpayers) to appreciate what you do.   On another level, perhaps it is a part of our natural tendency to work on translational research (i.e. research that clinical implications), which would, of course, have importance to the lay-person.  Now that I have written it down, I suspect that this may have been a big reason for my friend’s feelings.  As a physician, physician-scientist, or scientist with a desire to make a clinical impact, it is difficult to reconcile one’s career goals (helping patients) with research that has very little chance to make any clinical impact anytime soon–especially if no one even understands the work.   I don’t know.  I don’t think this is critical (so again, please don’t leave me angry emails/comments), but it is something to consider. 

 

gotta have the passion

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