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choosing a research project

You are starting in a lab and deciding on a project to work on. If you will be in the lab for an extended period of time, say >1 year, or if you are a graduate student, sometimes there is a temptation to work on something really interesting related to the field in which the thesis advisor works in, without much consideration of the advisor’s most immediate interests. Even if your advisor tells you that it is okay and he/she is willing to devote time to learning about that particular topic, don’t do it. Do NOT fall into that trap. PIs are great when you are joining the lab, and they often have every intention of following through on the promise to learn about your interests. BUT, (surprise surprise) PIs are too busy with grants to keep the lab afloat and other already established projects in the lab to learn about some new topic in their field because of a new graduate student. Unless there is some obvious benefit for the PI—and I mean that there is some connection or natural progression from a previously established project in the lab which promises near certain success—do not get baited into starting a completely brand new project for which the PI has no expertise (even if it is within the PI’s field) or current interest.

Here is why: inevitably, the PI will no longer have the time or energy and in the worst case, money, to support you and your project. There will be a time when you will run into logistical problems outside of your control and the PI will just not have the time, energy or desire to help. There will be problems with the research–technical problems and directions in which to take your research–that the PI will not be able to help you with.

All of this is not to say there aren’t situations were it could be wise to start down a new avenue of research in your thesis lab.  One advantage is certainly that you wouldn’t be competing with anyone in the lab.  In general, choosing such a project is usually a high risk, high reward enterprise.  So, if you are one of the people who is successful, it will be worth it.  However, this is certainly not the most conservative approach and despite a potentially high impact paper, I don’t know if it’s worth risking your training (which is exactly what will happen if you are stuck in a project that your PI cannot/will not advise you on and there’s a reason why a graduate student is called “student” and not assistant professor). 

I’ve known a few talented graduate students who joined the labs of well-known PIs and then chose projects that were in the field of the PI but not within their PIs’ realm of expertise.  Every one of those students functionally ended up going through their PhDs without an advisor–only a funding source.  In the meanwhile, their labmates were in and out of the PIs’ office getting regular advice and mentoring.  Not a good situation. 

Therefore, I leave you with this message: if you are joining a lab to do research, work on something the PI is interested in.  Don’t say the Mudphudder didn’t warn you…


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