Starting in a new lab is a special time. You have a space to choose what you’re going to be working on for the year or two. It’s a nice position to be in, but it also creates its own kind of stress—I find myself thinking I’ve wasted the opportunity if I don’t come up with something OMG genius. Sometimes I think my theoretical ideas are more creative than experimental ones. I think I do good empirical work, but it seems more… ordinary.
At first I thought about projects that would fit with the scope of the lab’s current grants and would dovetail nicely with my previous work. My advisors, though, said they believed the grant applications should only be seen as general guidelines for direction.
Instead they asked, “What’s the coolest result you can get?” They said they wanted me to publish a couple high-profile papers so I could get a good faculty job when I’m done. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. Not just the careerism aspect, but also explicitly going after the coolest, most compelling results possible.
There’s a lot to be said for aiming high. What are the most important problems that need to be solved? What are the biggest outstanding issues? What important pieces of the story have been neglected? I’ve looked back at my “open questions” post a bunch.
I also thought about the tools and techniques I want to learn here. What do I want to do when I can finally work on the questions closest to my heart?
In the end, the projects I’ve settled on seem pretty solid, even if they’re not exactly revolutionary. There’s a good spread of general-principle issues that transcend specific systems, old-school animal behavior, neat modern techniques, experiment/theory interaction, and safety versus risk. Now to the bench!