In praise of side projects

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.

23 thoughts on “In praise of side projects

  1. Pingback: (Almost) everything went right in grad school: Part 2 | ecoroulette

  2. Side projects got me through my dissertation. Most were small, quick, and easy to write. But there was one that ended up taking more time and effort (still analyzing the data) than I ever would have imagined. I realized that in the end I needed to reaffirm to myself that the projects were in fact *side* projects (though my dissertation was created out of a side/pilot project).

    The best thing that came out of side projects was the realization that there is more out there than the narrow focus of my dissertation. As I contemplate a return to research (after an exposure to science policy), I am more open to diverse questions and systems. I think having the freedom to pursue lines of research outside of my dissertation focus helped shape that flexibility.

  3. As someone who has benefited immensely from various side projects, I feel the need to speak up in support of doing an analysis or two on the side. Thanks Jeremy for acknowledging just how beneficial they can be!

    As you point out, side projects give you valuable practice doing science, but for me, the greatest benefit was following that work through to publication. This is a side of science that grad students typically don’t see until they’re ready to publish their dissertation. By writing and seeing how submission process works, I feel like I’m in a *much* better position now that I’m in the home stretch.

    The most common criticisms of side projects I’ve heard is that they distract from your dissertation work, and they slow down your progress. While I can’t really argue with the first (they do take time, after all), I feel the second is flat out baloney. I draw on the skills and techniques learned in my side projects all the time for my dissertation work, and it cuts down *immensely* on the time and effort needed to process the samples, analyze the data, and write the paper now that I’ve had some practice.

    Also, at the end of the day, who can argue with a peer-reviewed publication? In a job market that is increasingly (and depressingly) competitive, those bonuses add up.

    (PS a huge thanks goes to my supervisor, who has–and continues!–to provide wonderful side projects for me!)

  4. I have a primary project that requires quite a bit of local traveling. It’s generally low risk and should result in a good first publication, but it takes quite a bit of effort (and exercise). I’m also learning a lot of new techniques throughout the process.

    I also have another project that takes time to set up, and may not actually work, but it would also be very interesting if it does! Very high risk.

    This summer I have an undergraduate volunteer and I set him up with another side project that’s pretty straight forward and something he can do independently. Low risk, and something may come out of it. Either way, the undergraduate is really excited about the project.

    There’s also another side project that is low risk, more like a reanalysis but I haven’t found time to get that started, which I’m okay with.

    So I find it very motivating to have multiple projects of different risk levels.

    I barely collected any data my first year, but it did help to plan for projects and obtain some preliminary data in the midst of just reading, writing, and grading.

  5. I have had a few side projects that never really went anywhere; they seemed like good ideas at the time, but the more I delved into the literature and worked on them, the less interesting I realized that they were. The upside was that I learned a LOT and have a much broader base of knowledge.

    On the other hand, another side project of mine has been gestating for a while and it looks like it’s suddenly turning into something very exciting.

    The most important part of having a side project is the fact that you have one; it’s the willingness to try new, unrelated things. Odds are, you’ll stumble onto something exciting eventually…

    • “I have had a few side projects that never really went anywhere; they seemed like good ideas at the time, but the more I delved into the literature and worked on them, the less interesting I realized that they were.”

      Good point. That’s one downside risk that’s kind of unique to side projects–you risk doing something silly or duplicative due to lack of background research and knowledge. Although it certainly is possible to minimize this risk that don’t require you to venture too “far afield”, intellectually. Another way to minimize this risk is to have a side project that’s a collaboration, where between you and your collaborator you know enough to be sure that you’re not reinventing the wheel.

      Relatedly, Meg would probably note that working in a system you don’t know intimately increases the risk that you’ll make silly mistakes.

      • I started working on Asplanchna rotifers as a side project while at Georgia Tech. It took so long just to get the basics of the system worked out, and I was only able to do that because my colleague, Terry Snell, gave really crucial advice. (I’m pretty sure I never would have figured out on my own that I could migrate Paramecium by turning my beakers into electrodes!)

      • @Meg:

        Wait, you can make Paramecium migrate by electrifying the microcosms?! Tell me more (or email me), because I’ve never heard of this and I should probably know about it.

        Also, Asplanchna have always sounded really cool to me, but I’ve never actually seen one, much less worked with them. Are they as cool as I imagine? When I was looking into grad schools, I visited Dartmouth with an eye toward working with John Gilbert, and had I gone down that road it’s possible I might have ended up playing around with Asplanchna…

      • I should write a post on this, in case it ends up helping someone. I bet I can even find pictures of our setup…

  6. Sometimes I feel as if ALL of my projects are side projects to one another, a feeling which is reinforced by the criteria you set out above, with maybe the exception of “It’s quite different from your main line of research”. But then how different is different?

    With this in mind I’d say that I have a side-side-project, which is a historical biography of a 19th century plant collector called John Tweedie who worked in southern South America and encountered Charles Darwin whilst he was travelling on the Beagle. In fact a contemporary letter from Tweedie at the time is one of the best independent sources of evidence that Darwin was indeed the Beagle’s naturalist and not the captain’s companion as it’s sometimes claimed.

    The ultimate pay-off will be a book but along the way I’m trying to publish some papers in the historical literature. The first one came out in 2012:

    Click to access ollerton2012-tweedie-darwin-buenos-aires.pdf

  7. I recently started what I hope will become a continuing line of side projects for me: writing up interesting teaching activities I’ve developed and publishing them in small biology education journals.

    I accidentally stumbled into this line of side projects. When I adjuncted at a small campus two summers ago, I developed an ecology-themed class project that went over really well with my non-major students. I was so excited about how it went that I felt compelled to share it with a broader audience than my friends and family. So, I wrote it up at the end of the summer and submitted it before the fall semester began. This summer I am working on another teaching-related manuscript: writing up a class exercise that my TAs developed this year for a majors introductory ecol & evol course. My TAs are taking the lead on many aspects of the paper, and I am excited to see the paper take shape as we write and edit together.

    I really enjoy teaching, so this type of side project feels very satisfying to me. I recognize that it doesn’t result in glamorous or cutting-edge publications, but that’s perfectly okay with me. I also appreciate that this type of project is free, is generally lower-stress, and allows me to share teaching ideas with others.

  8. Forgot to mention in the post that I postdoc I used to know thought that everyone ought to have a side project comprised of a low effort long-term experiment. Something that requires little or no work to maintain and that can be easily sampled annually for a decade or more. She thought this would be a really good way for ecologists to accumulate a lot more long term data.

    NutNet is kind of an example, since for many of the NutNet investigators participation in NutNet is basically a side project.

  9. Thank goodness for side projects; they are what allowed me to complete my Ph.D.! My main project did not work out at all and it was the side projects that ended up comprising the bulk of my Ph.D. thesis. I now think of pilot studies as side projects as they allow me to move into new research areas and these are a combination of low risk and high risk projects. I agree with several of the comments above that side projects are a great way to learn new skills and provide you with the mental fortitude to make it through grad school.

  10. Yes I agree – side projects very useful – early on in my career when I worked for the UK Forestry Commission, my side project was based on species-area relationships from which I got several well cited papers in the ecological literature. At Silwood Park I set aside Thursday mornings for 20 years to collect data from 52 sycamore trees – I now have a huge data set which I am currently sharing with some ex-students who are better equipped mathematically and statistically than I am – hopefully we will end up wines 😉

  11. Thank goodness for side projects! I’ve gotten to form great collaborations on side projects, which minimally has paid off in the form of recommendation letters. (But more, they’ve been fun!) One side project solved a 2-body problem — a side project that I’d begun was a perfect fit for a paid fellowship opportunity geographically near my husband’s new postdoc. And finally, a different side project that was unexpectedly very successful landed me my current postdoc. My dissertation was sorta also an amalgam of side projects, as my first two attempts at a “main research direction” didn’t pan out.

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