Hi! I'm Geeka. I've been a scientist for, I don't know, it seems like forever, I guess since I started college, so, like 15 years? Anyhow, this is where I'm going to give my take on a bunch of stuff. I'm usually a little bit out there (that is, I don't see the obvious at the outset), which means that you are probably going to have to deal with reading such topics as: Interpersonal relationship training for scientists, my lab pet peeves, how to get along in business when you just came straight out of academia, trying to deal with having a life and being a scientist, really odd topics for a paper, random stuff I found on the internet that made me shoot coffee out of my nose, you know, (ab)normal Geeka. Why the title? Because at the very heart of me, I'm a virologist, and while I don't necessarily do that now, it's how I view the scientific world.
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Some PI's are of the variety that the recruit based upon the specific project they have to get off the ground (i.e. just got funded). Some recruit because they have this idea that they need prelim data on. Some PIs are in the boat that you can do whatever (within reason) that you are interested in. There are pitfalls to all of these.
In the first case, you have a pretty good project that is funded, there's some prelim data on it, there is direction. Downfalls: your PI has a very specific place they want this to go, so while you may have all the footwork done, you if you don't get the exact information that they want, they could give you bullshit 'confirmatory' stuff to do. If your PI is standup, you could probably get out soon. But, you probably are going to have to do an additional post-doc to prove your worth and learn some more techniques.
In the second case, it's kind of what science should be, there's a question, an idea, and someone needs to do the work. This might take long because you might have to develop something/make something. This might be very rewarding though. If it get's funded, great, but you should be aware of the fundability of the project.
The third case (and I will admit that my own PhD experience was more 3 than 2), you learn a lot. You are going to be there a while (unless you have magic hands), but it's a project that you came up with, something that you have invested in. There are also going to be funding hurdles, and there are going to be PI hurdles. PI hurdles include them not remembering what you are doing and why, or not getting it at all.
Sure, these are broad strokes, but picking your project is a broad stroke. You pick it based upon where it's been and where it's anticipated to go. It's like a stock, past performance doesn't guarantee future returns.
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"It's like a stock, past performance doesn't guarantee future returns."
I think a lot of it depends if you are picking a project for grad school or a postdoc. When I was in GS, Type 1 projects were usually done by MD/PhD students working in ultrafamous megalabs, just pick an off-the-shelf project, get a GlamourPub, and be out of the lab in 3 years. Not very useful as a learning experience. Type 2 I think is ideal for graduate students who want to learn to think independently, yet still have a framework to function within. Grad students shouldn't worry about the fundability of the project, that's the PI's job. Type 3 are ideal for postdocs wishing to establish independence, and probably almost necessary to land a TT job, where you can prove you can function independently as a PI.
My graduate experience started out as #1. That project bombed hardcore so we moved on to a project #2 type scheme where we had a cool set of "fishing expedition" data and no prelim biochemical data, and the last chapter of my thesis is all a project #3 set of experiments that I came up with completely on my own and developed a new technique to understand some interesting interaction biochemistry. I don't think project choosing necessarily fits in a neat little box. The best thing to do is have an interesting question and if things don't pan out, move on to another related interesting question after a few months. Part of the learning experience is knowing when it's time to give up on a project.
Brian: I totally hear you on learning when to give up. The 1st 2 years of my PhD project got scrapped.
Namnezia: I agree that it shouldn't be the students job to worry about funding, but it still happens. If you don't think that the lab is going to be around in 2 years, you need to do what's in your best interest, which is either go to another lab, or try to find some sort of funding/get put on a training grant or something.