Advice for Choosing a Research Project

By Margo R. Monroe

After joining a lab, the focus shifts to choosing an unexplored and impactful research topic that aligns with your interests. We've outlined some important factors to consider and summarize helpful advice from the successful PIs who were previously featured in "9 Tips to Achieve Success in Academia".

Important factors to consider when choosing a research project

person choosing between lab optionsAfter joining a lab, the next important decision to make is “What project will I work on?” In the short term, the research project must have innovative yet attainable milestones that contribute to intellectual thought and discovery to the scientific community. In the long term, the research project establishes your professional brand. It offers colleagues insight into your interests and will determine how you spend a good chuck of your mental energy and time. The research project also serves as a stepping stone into the next professional stage of your career by connecting you with people of similar interests and goals. The following questions can serve as a guide when selecting a research project.

  • What will the impact be in a best case scenario? If you get your dream results, what will your paper look like? What will be the impact on your field? You want to choose a research question that people (especially you!) care about.

  • Have you critically evaluated your plan? Have you read the relevant literature to understand where the field is today? Have you talked to veterans in the lab or the field? What are possible pitfalls in your strategy and how can you mitigate them? If you were to write a grant for this project, what would be your critical experiments and why?

  • What techniques and skills do you need to use to reach these milestones? Can you get assistance from people who have the required expertise to help move your project forward? Most projects typically require a diverse set of skills. It is important to know who in the lab and/or what facilities are available in order to realize your project ideas. What mentors are available for guidance, intelligent discussion, and/or brainstorming sessions to maximize productivity and direction of the project?

  • What is your timeline? A typical research project can take several years to complete and has multiple benchmarks. Think about what your personal goals are and set milestones along the way so that you don't get stuck doing the same experiment for too long. Keep evaluating your project along the way.

Advice from principal investigators

Tom Ellis highlights the importance of keeping up-to-date with the literature of a couple of well-known journals that discuss general science in the area of interest. “Have a look at what others have done recently that has been a big hit, and especially look at the new tools and methods that have been developed. Can you think of a project that combines an exciting new method or approach with another in a way not done before in your field?” He points out to “not be shackled by your own subject - maybe something used in astrophysics can be applied to fungal biology.”

Connie Cepko advises students to consider their goal of PhD training when selecting a research topic. The end point of training is not to become a pro in a field, but to be trained to think and perform like a scientist. Researchers should  pick a topic that “looks at the complexity of biology and break apart a piece that can address a topic in a mechanistic way using the technology available.” Choosing a research project “entails good judgement with the current technology to identify a problem, asking what approach will I take and what can I learn, learning the difference between good and bad data, and knowing how to follow the design, execute, analyze, repeat pathway that is required of scientists.”

Professor George Church encourages graduate students and postdocs to follow their passions and dive into a project that aligns with your dreams. He also highlights the importance of combining “new discoveries or technologies increase chances that your project will be fresh as well.”

Don't underestimate the importance of choosing a solid research topic and approach. At Addgene, we've heard of labs where new hires spend the first 3 months reading and writing a proposal before even touching a pipetteman. Take the time to generate new ideas and think about them critically before diving in.

Research projects are designed to train graduate students and postdocs to think analytically and critically. Passion fuels the drive to continue persuing milestones and working hard. Being patient, being selective, and talking to peers and mentors will help elucidate which project is right for you.



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Topics: Science Careers, Early Career Researcher

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