I’m not going to link to it, but loyal readers should definitely check on the Zheng lab’s You Tube video “Bad Project”.
The real issue for today’s blog post is how to avoid getting stuck with the proverbial bad project. And the advice is aimed at our doctoral student readers.
This is a difficult problem, because 1) grad students typically don’t have a huge amount of say on what project their PI gives them and 2) they also don’t often have the experience to avoid those bad projects on the rare occasions where they do have a choice. So what to do?
First, let’s face it. If you are on a rotation, a bad project isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. It’s just wasted time (and it might not even have to be that if you learn some new methods). But, if it’s your dissertation project then, indeed, you’re toast.
Second, the ultimate answer to avoiding a bad project is finding a good PI. This is something you do have control over (at least as far as your thesis is concerned, it’s generally a mutual decision). As I’ve written before, PI’s come in two extremes: the extremely junior newly minted assistant professor who can give you lots of attention, but may not have the resources to support your project well, and further may also not have the experience to know the bad project from the good one. The other extreme is the lab chief with 20 postdocs and 40 graduate students, not to mention several technicians. Here you’ve got someone who probably could tell you which projects are bad, but doesn’t have the time or attention span or will to do so. In the worst case scenario (just like in the Video, you’ll inherent the bad project of someone more senior in the lab who is fortunate enough to have punched her ticket (PhD) and be leaving.
So pick a PI in the middle of that distribution unless, of course, your scientific passion pushes you otherwise. But, in that case, go in with your eyes wide open.