If there’s one thing that a scientist can’t be without, it’s ideas. A good working knowledge of your field, and its outstanding research questions, is not enough; you also need to have the imagination to exploit it. But it’s a very specific sort of imagination: it’s reading a paper on a particular field area and thinking, ‘this is the ideal place to collect data on x’. It’s looking at a weird data point and realising ‘if this isn’t an error, then theory a can’t be right, but theory b might be…and if so, then we should also see y’. It’s reading a report on a new experimental method and thinking ‘hmmm, I wonder if I can use it to measure z more accurately?’
I’ve always worried that, in this key area, I’m somewhat lacking. When I asked my PhD supervisor about how often he came up with research ideas he answered, “all the time – I have more ideas than I can possibly follow up on.” I saw nothing in the five-and-a-half years that I worked in his lab to suggest that he was exaggerating; in contrast, whilst I have the knowledge, I’ve always struggled to frame the questions I’m interested in researching in terms of specific research proposals.

This is perhaps a weakness with the PhD process in the UK, where you usually apply to work on a particular project, specified in advance, rather than attaching yourself to a lab and being more involved in designing your thesis project, as is the case in places like the US*. Hence I got experience in managing a research project, but not designing a research programme – and it is the latter skill which is the most essential if I am ever going to amount to more than someone else’s lab skivvy.
My hope has been that my weakness in this area was something that I could overcome with more experience; that eventually my knowledge and expertise would reach a critical mass, and the ideas would start to flow. I was never convinced that this hope was a realistic one, but in the last couple of months I’m starting to feel that maybe I can acquire this talent after all. Coming out to South Africa seems to have been the main catalyst: immersing myself in a completely different area of research, meeting and talking with new people with unfamiliar interests and preoccupations, and getting out into the field and seeing some really cool geology, have all helped to reignite my enthusiasm for research. But I also find myself looking at things slightly differently: my “hmm, that’s interesting” has evolved into “hmm, that’s interesting, I wonder if you could test that further with x…” Even more invigorating is how this surge in enthusiasm is also reaching back in time, to inspire new insights and ideas in my old research.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of these ideas currently buzzing around my brain are any good – it’s almost certain that some of them are hair-brained, or unworkable, or hair-brained and unworkable. Even the ones which have some promise may not set the geological world ablaze with excitement. But they’re mine, and even if I’ve only gone from having no research ideas to daft research ideas, I feel that’s a step in the right direction.
*where you also spend much longer as a grad student. And have to take more exams. Both of which could be considered disadvantages.

Categories: academic life

Comments (6)

  1. sciencewoman says:

    This post is perfect for the post-doc carnival tomorrow. Thanks for writing it today.

  2. Natalia says:

    I have also worried about the same issue, being a PhD student in Brazil. I even talked a bit with my supervisor about it, and he said I needed to read more papers and our group needed to discuss more papers, in a more systematic way. I believe it may help, so I am trying to work this out. But I also wonder when I will reach that “critical mass”.

  3. Chris says:

    The whole group discussing of papers requires just the right group of people to work well. In some labs, the “boss” and a few others will tend to dominate discussion, which leaves lesser (or less confident) members wondering why they bothered to come. Pubs and coffee shops are probably responsible for more scientific discussion than formal discussion groups 🙂

  4. Chris Rowan says:

    Indeed, although the addition of beer tends to send conversations in the direction of moaning about your colleagues, your finance office, your funding bodies….

  5. Fred Ross says:

    It doesn’t matter if they’re harebrained and unworkable. All these things start out as harebrained and unworkable. Science is a sieve that can be used to reject the bogus ones, or at least throw them back into the pot to stew longer.
    You might like Richard Hamming’s article, You and Your Research. He also wrote a good book on this kind of thing, but it’s almost impossible to find.

  6. Eamon Knight says:

    The more I read science bloggers moan about the travails of grad student life, of post-doc life, of scrabbling for tenure, of the long hours and lousy pay, the gladder I am that I studied engineering and wound up as a bit-twiddler. I really don’t think I’m cut out for what you guys do.
    Re ideas: I once heard an anecdote about Einstein (which I can’t find reference to in a short Google search, so apply appropriate apocryphality modifier), attributed to some moderately famous physicist. It goes: said physicist met Einstein at some academic social function. At one point, the physicist took out a notepad and jotted something down, then put it back in his pocket. Einstein asked him what he was doing, and the physicist explained that he always carried a notepad so he could jot down any good ideas that occurred to him before he forgot them. He asked Einstein if he did not have the same problem? “No”, replied Einstein, “I seldom have any good ideas”.