April 29, 2014

Figuring Out the Perfect Project

I have spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, in a sense.  At my fancy new post doctoral institution, I have a couple projects going, but they don’t feel like “mine.”  I didn’t come up with the ideas to get them started, and I feel like they’re not my “babies.”  Still, no need to complain about some great work that I can do while I figure out my own project.

And that’s where I’m stuck right now.  Because I’ve switched fields (somewhat radically, albeit not that much), cracking into the literature has been tough.  Sure, I understand the basics, but every field has its nuances, and I have yet to master these.  The depth of the literature (and my lack of complete understanding) has been holding me back at figuring out where I can carve out my niche.  Thus, I have a lot of reading in front of me, and it’s rather intimidating. 

Being a rather linear person, I like when things fall into line:  I read this paper, then that paper, and then that paper.  This type of thinking doesn’t work very well when diving into the literature:  I’ve got to jump in and start reading, find some references, read some other papers, and at the end of the day, understand all of it.  I envision this as a big cloud filled with information with connections between all the points, and I prefer lines, rather than clouds.  Nonetheless, I’ve done this before, and I’ll do it again.

I can search for some topics that interest me, but I’ve found that either the experiments have been done before or I end up looking at irrelevant things (like a dog trainer looking up how to grow carrots… terrible metaphor, but you get what I’m saying).  While I think that I may have come up with some really great ideas, I’ve got to verify them, which requires a lot of reading through the literature.  This is a great situation because it introduces me to a lot of great topics, and I’m learning a lot very rapidly.  I become excited when I’m reading the literature and I find that someone has already answered the question that I wanted to study… for a couple different reasons.  First, that sucks because I wanted to do it.  Second, it’s great because I’m thinking along the right lines for asking the pertinent questions in my field.  Regardless, I’m learning a lot of new things.

In reality, the main thing that I’m looking for is that “wow” factor – that sexy project.  Something unexpected and exciting sounds perfect (as I’m sure it does to everyone), and I’d like to do something that stimulates my creativity.  Naturally, everyone is going for those tantalizing topics – reading the literature, one can see that there are certain molecules or processes that are in vogue.  Finding that next big topic would be even better.  After all, I would like to establish a career based on this mystery topic.

Here’s to hoping that my ideas fly and don’t fall flat on the ground.  Even though the latter is more likely, scientists can’t help but try.

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