Lovely @GilleighD asked on Twitter how did I choose the topic of study for my PhD. I don’t think I’ve covered this before, and it is a very interesting question, so here it goes.
Choosing what to study during my PhD was a multi-factorial decision. I’ll start by saying that I went into a school with a broad program, which didn’t “force” students to choose a lab or department right away. After doing rotations in a couple of departments I chose a department and lab I felt comfortable in. I’d met my PhD mentor during a departmental open house in my first few weeks in school, and while chatting with the PI and a lab member (and later friend) I noticed that their area of research and the tools they employed were very interesting. I’d learned a bit about the critter I ended up studying while I was a sophomore in college and couldn’t believe that it was there, staring at me in the face begging to be studied. I also liked the approach they were using, having just learned about it the previous summer.
So, the critter I knew from two years before, the technique a year after that. I found about these two things while doing research for a class and later for a summer project. I felt incredibly lucky that, even without really any intension, I sort of stumbled upon my future lab and science love. I think it was a combination of finding two things I liked, which drove me to choose a lab where I could learn about the topic and approach in more detail.
Later, when I joined the lab my boss talked about the different projects that were going on and what each person was doing. There were 3 major areas of research and I wasn’t really interested in the first one, at least enough to commit several years of effort to study it (plus, another student who had started the year before was actively working on it, so I didn’t want to step on his toes). The second project, now that I think about it, though interesting, was bound to die in a couple of years. Eventually someone solved the structure of it and the project was put on hold indefinitely. The third project, and a big focus of the lab, had been my PI’s thesis topic and now someone else (the student I talked to at the open house), was actively pursuing it. The boss made it clear that there was enough material for several thesis projects and that I wouldn’t be stepping on anyone’s toes. I chose that one, and I ended up in 4 or 5 publications in one way or the other.
Originally I was set to study a “subset” of the main project, and not the whole system. But, the project was really hard and I was just learning the technique, so the boss asked me to help the senior grad student in the lab and learn how this person worked on the whole system. I picked up really quickly and eventually what was set to be this person’s second thesis project was passed on to me (all friendly, as this student was set to defend). That project opened up the door for a couple more projects, all related to the biology of the system (if you would, though this is not technically 100% correct, as I wasn’t doing any molecular bio or biochemistry on the system) and towards the end of my time in grad school I’d woven a story about how a particular critter behaves. It’s a very interesting project and along the way I taught another student how to set things up and do a project of his own, along with providing enough starting material so that a new generation could take over.
To summarize, a critter and approach I’d learned while I was an undergrad were staring at me while talking to a PI and student, then I chose the topic I thought was “hot” in the lab (which it was/is), started a somewhat related project which wasn’t working, then switched to the “main” area and ended up setting a beautiful story as time went on. The perfect combination of topic and technique were what drove me to decide. I’d say, find a topic or technique you like, study the prospects of this job (feasibility, how much you can get accomplished in however long you have in school, etc), and commit to it. BUT, if during the course of your studies you hit a wall, or see promise in something related (or totally unrelated), don’t be afraid to re-evaluate your project and its future.
Hope this provides some insight into how I chose my project. If you have any specific questions, feel free to email or tweet. I’ll be happy to talk more about this. Best of luck!