Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Idea-generation anxiety

Even though I was considering writing a K99 a while ago, now Dr. BrownEyes and I have decided that plan A is going to be to move back home in about 2 years. Since back home there aren’t really tenure track positions like here in the US, most people that want to stay in academia will do a second postdoc that will then slowly move into an independent position when you’ve acquired money to hire someone. This means that you’re still under the umbrella of a full professor, which is just the way the system is. So we’re shortly going back home in August to network ourselves back into a postdoc position there, and talk about the grants that we should write (because they will probably offer us a contract for a year unless we get our own grant money). 

So far, the planning is all going well, but since it’s all pretty informal I only very recently realized that I should have something to say about what I want to do in the future. And that’s when I do realize that I might be somewhat of an imposter. Because I find it so hard to think of good, solid ideas for experiments to propose in a grant. So far, my PhD project was thought of mostly by my advisor, and my postdoc project that I’m working on now was thought of by me, but I’m currently not so sure if that was a good idea…. So now I have to come up with an idea that adheres to all of these criteria: it has to be fundable, it has to get publishable results within a relatively short period (3 yrs) of time, it has to fit within the lab that I’m going to (and since I’m interviewing at two different labs I should think of two slightly different projects), it has to have experiments that can be doable by undergrads so that I can get help, it should preferably have some pilot-data from my current postdoc, it would be nice if it has something sexy like optogenetics (or is that all 2009 now?), and it has to be interesting to me. I put this last reason last on purpose, because all this idea-generating anxiety sometimes makes me forget that I just have to think of something that interests me. What also makes me doubt my ability to generate interesting ideas is the fact that my attempts at getting postdoc grants has so far failed. Three out of four were rejected and I haven’t heard back from the fourth. 

So how do people do this? Just sit down and think of experiments to do? And how do you make rejected grants not doubt your ability to think of good ideas?



    1. Thanks, that's a great post! It's good to know that other people experience the same thing. It really feels to me like this is when 'it' needs to happen, when the men are separated from the boys so to say ;-). I like your idea of thinking about layers of research questions.

  2. I’ve found that coming up with research ideas gets easier and easier. I spent the first few years of my faculty position where “What am I going to do?” felt like a struggle. Maybe it’s just because I developed a backlog of ideas.

    I worry that trying to find something “fundable” with the current rates of grant success may be a mug’s game. Not saying you should ignore it completely, but don’t let not getting a grant be the sole determination of the idea’s worth.

  3. I think part of it is switching one's mindset from "trees" to "forest". As you find yourself thinking more broadly and even getting away from the bench in favor of writing papers and grants, it forces you to think more broadly. From that perspective, ideas come more easily.

  4. I think part of it is switching one's mindset from "trees" to "forest".

    For me, this has definitely been the hardest step to take. I thought I was on the right track as a postdoc with my nice little research summary, but I wasn't sure if I could pull it all off (hence the imposter syndrome). Then I walked into an empty lab and had all these ideas but couldn't figure out what the hell to do first (imposter syndrome heightened). Really quickly, I found my brain running off in 20 directions at once, which was completely overwhelming (imposter syndrome took over). I'm just now starting to calm down a very little bit, think more broadly about the research, and figure out what ideas fit, and which ones need to go away. Lots of thinking, lots of reading, lots of writing, lots of talking to colleagues.

    Also, as Zen said, keep in mind that lots of good grants get rejected, and even triaged; it's sometimes just a matter of matching the right project to the right funding agency at the right time.