Do you have a side project? A line of research distinct from your main focus, and on which you spend less time/effort/resources? If not, maybe you should.
I think good side projects tend to have certain features:
- You like working on it. You often have no other reason to do a side project besides wanting to do it. So if you don’t want to do it, you never will.
- It’s easy to fit it in with your other time commitments. Perhaps it’s a project with no deadline, on which you can make progress on bit by bit. It’s great to have something you can work on whenever you have a bit of time in which you can’t work on your main project or don’t feel like doing so. That’s a good way to stay productive–procrastinate on your main project by working on your side project. Or maybe it’s a long-term project that only requires intensive effort for a short period of time once or twice a year. Or maybe it’s a project that requires a full-time commitment, but it’s a one-off commitment for some fairly short, well-defined period.
- It’s cheap. A good side project is one that you can pursue without much (or any) grant support or other dedicated resources. That’s why things like literature reviews and modeling projects can make good side projects.
- It’s quite different from your main line of research. If it’s got some direct connection to your main line of research, you’re going to feel like it’s part of your main line of research, and so won’t treat it as something that you can do whenever you get a bit of time. Plus, part of the motivation for many side projects is as a form of bet hedging, to give you another “iron in the fire” in case your main line of research suffers a setback or doesn’t work out. If the side project is closely related to your main line of research, it’ll be subject to all the same risks, and so won’t function as bet hedging.
- It’s something that might have a big payoff, or might grow into something bigger. Actually, this isn’t essential. There’s definitely a place for side projects that are just self-indulgence. Something you do just because you feel like doing it, never mind what anyone else thinks or if it will pay off down the road or whatever. Something that’s yours, for you and you alone.* But there’s also a place for side projects that do double-duty as pilot studies or exploratory studies for larger efforts (whether they’re intended that way or not–sometimes side projects grow into main projects even though that wasn’t originally the intent). There’s also a place for side projects that have a high risk of failure, but a small chance of big success. Because if a side project fails, well, no big deal–it’s not like you had much money/time/effort invested in it. That’s why experiments so crazy they just might work can be good side projects.
When I started in graduate school, my supervisor handed me a project. As I recall, it was part of his NSF grant, but was quite a self-contained project that was only loosely connected to the other projects comprising the grant.** The project wasn’t going to be part of my research proposal*** (which I hadn’t yet written), so for me it was a side project. It was a set of straightforward, low-risk experiments that I could do on my own in a few months, and that if successful would lead to one solid paper. Doing it was good training for me, since I was planning to work in the same system (protist microcosms). And I was on a fellowship so my only other duties were to read widely and think of research ideas, which made it easy to carve out time to do the project.
I’m really glad I did it. Psychologically, I suspect it helped me get through my first year. If as a beginning grad student you’re spending all your time reading and thinking, or doing other things besides collecting data (like TAing), it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any progress towards your degree. You are, of course–reading and thinking widely is absolutely vital for a grad student, and TAing can be valuable training as well as being rewarding. But sometimes it doesn’t feel that way, which can be hard. I was doing a lot of reading and thinking–but I was also coming home at the end of the day having collected data that I knew would lead to a paper. That felt like progress.
Tell us about your own side projects and what you’ve gotten out of them in the comments!
*Though if your side project is pure self-indulgence, you need to recognize that and have the discipline not to spend too much time on it. This is less of a worry if your side project is something that’s likely to lead to a solid paper, or is a pilot study, or etc.
**Random aside: does NSF still fund this sort of work? Grant proposals that actually consist of 2-3 loosely-related subprojects? I’m sure the answer to this question depends on the details–just how loosely the subprojects are related, etc. But I think there’s real value in this sort of work–coming at some big question from various angles. It would be a shame if NSF doesn’t fund this sort of work, or funds it only in the sense that they’re willing to give a single PI multiple grants to pursue multiple lines of research.
***Although it eventually did end up as one chapter in my dissertation. My supervisor didn’t believe that dissertations necessarily had to comprise a single integrated project. I share his views on that.