One of my grad school profs was fond of saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time” when asked why he’d done something. It’s all about finding an idea that really is a good idea. That should mean something to anyone whose grant was just funded, and it means even more when the grant is renewed. The thing that’s implicit here is that it’s not easy to know if it’s good – or saying it in another way – hindsight is nearly always better than foresight. It reminds me of the old (and bad) joke where the answer of the question: “Do you have any ID? is: ID? About what?
So let’s start with ideas about research – basic science or medical. How do you know if yours is a good one? Just design an experiment, study or trial to test it. If your hypothesis is accepted, your idea was a good one. If your hypothesis is rejected, your idea might not be a bad one, but it’s wrong. You can design a better experiment or just get a better (more testable) idea. What makes one idea better than another? Better ones lead to new and even more interesting and testable ideas. If want to read more about how this works (and not just in planning research), pick up a copy of the book “Surely you’re joking Dr Feynman.”
Consider this: how big are your ideas? Do you like to move ahead one small step at a time? After all, “a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” Or do you evaluate what is known at the time and take a big “leap of faith?” In the end, there are two guiding questions: “What is known now?” and “what does this (potentially) add?” Discussion of the financial support that’s needed for all this is beyond the scope of this short blog posting. It should be mentioned, however, that government grants and subsidies, grants from private foundations, venture capital and corporate budgets are all involved, sometimes in combination.
Many PhD scientists work in industry or become entrepreneurs rather than stay in academia or government labs. Do you have an idea to move in that direction? They often start with an idea that they pursue 24/7 for a long time, sometimes years before they know if it really was a good idea (usually from a financial point of view). Just think about Craig Venter and Francis Collins; similar ideas, different personalities, different execution. Kary Mullis, whose research was key in finding a way to use PCR to allow the rapid and exponential amplification of DNA sequences had an “unconventional” career path including postdocs, academic research, industrial research and business ownership, even leaving scientific activity a couple of times.
Where do good ideas come from? Certainly not out of a vacuum. Brainstorming? Study of what’s already known in a field? Intuition? Step-by-step progression? All of those, of course. But the really big ones – in my opinion – just happen from an unconventional way of looking at things, an unforeseen consequence of analysis (serendipity?). Think about Richard Feynman and his unconventional way of doing integrals, Linus Pauling and seeing non-integral numbers of amino acids per turn of a helix, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren and unexpected gastric microbial ecology.
So, when it comes to research and career development, keep your eyes, ears and mind open. Get an idea and evaluate it carefully for its potential. And most important – be flexible.
That’s all for now.