Original Ideas

7 02 2012

For those of you who have read my blog since the beginning, you know my academic history.  For those of you who are newer readers, let me fill you in on some details that are relevant for this post.  I graduated with my Ph.D. in a subfield of chemistry in May of 2010.  I’ve known that I wanted to teach since early on in graduate school.  I decided (with my bosses approval) to start applying for teaching positions in the Fall of 2009.

I know that many of you are probably thinking, “What! No postdoc?”

My boss and I agreed that since I had no desire to be a big-time PI at an RO1 institution that doing a postdoc wasn’t necessary for me.  He also agreed that if I didn’t find a job during this cycle that he would keep me on a a postdoc until I was able to move on to something else.  This sounded like a great plan to me!  I went ahead and sent out close to 30 applications during that cycle; including applications for a couple of teaching postdocs (which apparently are very very rare in the field of chemistry).  To make a long story short, and to get to the heart of this post, I ended up getting a couple of call backs and ultimately landing my dream job.

The crux of this post is whether or not is was a good idea on my part to forgo a postdoc.  I don’t feel as though doing a postdoc would have helped me any with my teaching ability; I feel that I received plenty of teaching experience during my days in graduate school.  Most chemistry postdocs I know just spend their days slaving away in the lab.  They learn to become more independent researchers and formulate their own research ideas.  This is where I start questioning myself.  In graduate school, I was not responsible for coming up with my own big ideas.  My boss gave me an idea and told me to make some compounds, and I took it from there.  I made different derivatives of my own thinking, but the idea as a whole was his.

Now, as I sit in my nice office typing this post, I wonder, did I do myself a disservice by not going the postdoc route? I am by no means in a high-pressure situation where it is publish or perish, but I was hired under the notion that I could eventually start a small research project much like at a PUI, but this is for a professional program.  Some of our students (primarily those who obtained a B.S. in chemistry as an undergraduate) have already approached me because they know what type of work I want to do, but I have to turn them away because I don’t have a project for them.

I am trying my best to come up with some idea that I can get rolling into a nice little project, but I am not having any luck.  I have some internal collaboration going on right now, but it is in the very early stages that doesn’t require any lab work from me at this time.  I am scouring the literature right now (I really have to make myself read the literature…I hate it!), but anytime I see something that interests me I don’t know how to translate that into an actual project that has legs.

Do any of you have suggestions on how to get the ball rolling on discovering your next research project? How did you discover your first real idea?

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5 responses

8 02 2012
Dr. Dad, PhD

First, I’ll confess that I’m a biologist working in the biomedical arena, so I have no idea how to generate new chemistry research. In fact, I only have the slightest idea what chemists do all day, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

Now, my approach to coming up with ideas. Original ideas always come from old data. Whether its your data or something you find in a paper, data always has to be at the core of research. So as you pore through the lit, ask what the published data means in the big picture. What questions remained unanswered? How would you test those questions? Does the published work suggest a new process? A little understood intermediate? Perhaps these could lead to exploratory experiments in your lab to test bigger theories you may have developed.

As a side note, my comprehensive exam in grad school consisted of everyone reading the same paper and using it as a foundation for an NIH R01 application. We had 6 days to learn the field, identify knowledge gaps, and come up with 5 years of research. It was tough, but it was a great way to show that we could generate ideas on our own, and we all got great critiques from it….

Sorry I can’t be more specific, but I think you’re asking one of the biggest and hardest questions for research….

8 02 2012
joshuca

Thanks! This is what I am trying to accomplish right now, but so far it isn’t taking me anywhere. Maybe with more time something will come of it. As for the comprehensive exams in grad school. The year before I took mine, our department was toying with the idea of switching to an idea like yours. However, nothing changed and I just had the same old comprehensive exams as in the past (5 exams in 5 days…). I would have really like having a comprehensive exam like yours.
Thanks for your thoughts!

8 02 2012
Dr. Dad, PhD

When you read papers do you ever think about potential future studies? It’s something that I always did when I presented a paper (in journal club/lab meetings, etc.) that starts to get you thinking and eventually coming up with new lines of research.

It starts as essentially lifting sections from the discussion, but eventually develops to the point where you just intuitively know what the next steps “should” be….

Just a thought…

12 02 2012
mareserinitatis

I’m in a weird situation because I don’t have to come up with my research at work (yet), but I sometimes do. On the other hand, I’m trying to come up with a comprehensive way to pull my diverse interests together as they seem to be rather scattered and connected only by what work I’m doing at the moment. Anyway, I get ideas from both tinkering in the lab and reading literature. I had to do a lit study for a project I was working on, and I noticed that all the research seemed to be incremental. I started asking more fundamental questions – why don’t they do it this way or that way? When I’m working in the lab, I try to figure out what stuff has been done before and how does it compare. I realized when I was studying something once that there was really no literature that gave me something to compare to…which prompted a whole study and a couple papers.

So, as far as my engineering research goes, it seems like it’s a matter of asking questions about the foundations – why are things done this way? Is there a better or different way to do it?

My PhD research, which is in solar physics, is a hair different. I had to come up with the investigation myself, but it came straight from reading literature. I feel kind of lost here as I haven’t been doing it long enough to feel secure in what I’m doing…whereas when I graduated with my MSEE, I’d authored or co-authored about 4 papers.

Just keep asking questions and then try to answer them. Sometimes you can answer them by going into the literature, and sometimes it means you have to do the experiment yourself. 🙂

18 03 2012
Taylor Michaels

Sooooo — you never entertained the idea of working — at a real job???

You would like to teach what you have been taught. Regurgitate what you have consumed. Not add. Not build. Not make the world a better place. Just regurgitate? Output just what was input? Like a computer. And the big question in your life is Post Doc??? Or a nice little project???

I had a professor of Momentum, Heat and Mass Transfer who had never worked at a real job. Two semesters of my life working like a dog to learn something that neither I nor my classmates ever used. Partial differential equations every day. All the time. Time totally wasted.

The sad part is that he didn’t know he was wasting our time. He had never worked. He didn’t know what was important and what wasn’t. He only knew what he had been taught, no doubt by someone else who had never worked. He tried to teach what he knew. Even when it was worthless. Was his life worthless or worse, a waste of everybody’s time?

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