When, in the course of an academic career, should you work on your own ideas: you know, the stuff that deep down you think is really interesting, potentially breakthrough stuff.
Because, most scientists, most of the time, don't.
every postdoc I know or have met and with whom I have discussed the question, agrees that the current system encourages working on established projects rather than investigating own ideas (which might possibly fail and/or not result in publications with well known top researchers on high-impact topics), and they agree that this is not optimal to progress
So, when should we do it?
It is exceedingly rare for pre-university people to do original and interesting research, mostly they do not have the knowledge base.
Undergraduates rarely have the time, and mostly do plug'n'chug research projects, carefully chopped up "doable" projects - this is mainly because we don't want to put undergraduates off doing research by offering impossible or frustrating projects - this may be a big mistake, thinking back on my undergraduate projects (I did three: one was trivial; one was interesting, I solved it partially and took it a step further than planned, and still have the folder on my desk to finish the interesting bit one day; and the third was offered as an "impossible" project which I jumped on, did, started writing a paper on it, got dropped when the editor asked for a change and a competitor published a main part of the result while revising, and then was completed by my advisor last year... man, that was fun).
Graduate students are an interesting case: the catch here is that a lot of interesting projects, by their nature, are either very hard, possibly impossible, or very risky - and grad students need to deliver products, papers and a thesis, in a finite time. Having them spend a lot of time on "interesting" problems may be bad for their career, so there is a push for most of them to do "solid, doable" research. Also grad students spend a lot of time climbing the learning curve.
And, at least in my field, there is a lot of data and a lot of modeling that obviously needs to be done, is sufficiently challenging to be PhD level, and is clearly doable.
There is a chance to do something as a postdoc, especially at the transition between grad/first postdoc, or going from first to second postdoc. Certainly an opportunity to change direction, but most postdocs are tied to grants - there is product to be delivered - specific and time critical data or modeling, tied to actual time limited funding. There are some open fellowships, more than there used to be, and some of the most interesting and innovative research comes from postdocs in those positions, I'd finger that group as the most likely to come up with geniunely new and original science; but, most of the work there is still guided by senior people who have their own, often old, ideas on what ought to be done, and while it is always solid research, and sometime very important research, it is often the same research.
And postdocs need to publish a lot if they want to move to the next level.
Ok, so the tenure track... well, pre-tenure, you have three jobs: get grants, get papers out, and do the rest of the crap thrown your way done (like teaching, advising, committees, outreach - you know the stuff that actually makes universities function as units) and done without impacting the first two too badly.
Well, you'd have to be as crazy as me to try to do anything different at this stage - to maximize paper output you want to focus on one, or at most two, sub-sub-fields where you can make rapid progress and publish like crazy. No time to get into anything new! And to get grants you must be recognized by the sub-sub-field as one of theirs, an "expert", who has paid due homage to all the other experts - ie you must know, and explicitly acknowledge, anyone who might be on the grant panel and have an established track record in getting done what you vaguely promise to do (hence the cynical view that you apply for grants to do stuff you've already done to do what you want to do next).
So on the tenure track you don't want to go do anything crazy interesting, unless you like to gamble.
But, tenure, freedom! that must be when you start doing the really interesting stuff...?
Well, maybe, if you're a little bit crazy still... problem is, if you got that far, you must have grants and students and collaborations, and they're all very interesting, and some are maybe yours, but...
they are all committments on your time! When do you get to do the crazy fun stuff?
And if you think pre-tenure there's a lot of paperwork and committees... Hah!
Well, there's always a sabbatical - except these also come with constraints and demands - the sabbatical plan makes promises, your collaborators have ideas, good ideas, and you're expected to come back with lots more publications (all that free time) and grants (all that free time) and rested (all that free time).
So, when do we get to work on our own ideas?
Well, there's always retirement, right?
When I started my Masters, I was new to the country and to the US educational system (and frankly, to biology - I was in vet school back home). So, My MS project was given to me by my advisor. It was stuff that was going to work and be publishable - both positive and negative results were bound to be interesting. I got three papers and a review out of it.
For PhD I did double the amount of work - a project that was certain to be interesting and publishable no matter what results, and an out-of-the-left field idea of mine which, lucky as I am, turned out well. Now that I have tasted the beauty of doing my own stuff, following my own hunches, and succeeding at it, I will never go back to being told what to do....
Oh - one more important piece of info - the surefire project was expensive, my own project was dirt-cheap (literally pennies, or piggybacking on other stuff going on in the lab, but enormous effort on my part).
Cheaper the science, more easily people get to do what they want. My ecology colleagues in grad school all did whatever they wanted, my molecular friends followed the recipes. I was in the middle, getting a little bit of both worlds: both security and the opportunity to test my own ideas.
If your own ideas aren't very good, then yes, maybe you should work on someone else's ideas. But if your own ideas are good, work on them, at all stages of your career. If your ideas aren't not good enough to get you that post-doc position or job or grant or promotion, work to make them better. If you can't make them better, consider finding a different job. All the fun of science is working on your own ideas.
There is an added problem when your ideas are ambitious enough to not only be outside of the well-established projects, but also require a loooong time to be developed into something publishable. My plan: get a job in a low-profile place (in my case, a low-profile country, my own) where the expectations about your output are low. Work on something palatable to commitees just hard enough to satisfy those low expectations, and use the rest of your time for your dreams. Since you are passionate about them, you'll find the time to do it. Of course, this only works if your projects are cheap (as in Coturnix's experience). Happily, I'm a theoretician.
Will it work? I hope so. Greg Chaitin told me it worked for him (he worked as a programmer, while musing about computer science and philosophy), and he sees it as one of the few ways to develop new ideas under the current academic culture.
That is a very idealistic view.
In reality you are being advised early on in your career, and most students do research that ranges from exactly that specified and chosen by their advisor, to mostly their own ideas only gently nudged by the advisor.
It is a very rare student that has such a good ab initio idea that they are just let run loose.
Further, even if the student/postdoc has good ideas, the funding may pay for different research effort, with only a small effort permitted for sideprojects, less so if it is experimental ideas.
And, even if the student has good ideas, the advisor may press for their ideas to be worked on as a matter if imperative, after all the advisor would like their idea to be worked on, not necessarily someone elses good idea.
Then there is the problem of recognizing not just good ideas, but better ideas, or different ideas.
And then you can get stuck - you'd like to work on something else, maybe even an old and good original idea you had in your idealistic youth, but you're stuck as an expert in something else - you can get funding in your bread'n'butter research which is solid, but you can't break into your "idea" because either it is deemed not interesting, or because you're caught in the catch-22 of not having done it, so you can't get the funding to do it.
The situation is not actually as bad as I am making it sound, but there is a structural problem here which is obvious and frighteningly unreasonable
For years my advisor did not know about my special project. As I said, it costed nothing except my extra time (and did not necessitate a new IACUC protocol or anything like that). I kept showing him my 'regular' data (that project did come out of our discussions and followed up on my MS findings so it is semi-mine as well) and started writing the Dissertation.
Then one day I decided to show him my 'secret' stuff and actually made a PowerPoint. His eyes got big as saucers, he told me to keep quiet about it and to rewrite my dissertation with my project as a core and the up-till-then mainstream stuff as an addendum.
That is good, but... how is that thesis going?
No offense - but it doesn't matter how good your idea is if you don't write it up and put it out (something it took me a long time to really understand).
And, will the idea get you to the next stage, where you actually have the resources to work on your own research ideas?
In the end, one of the things that does save us from ourselves are the stubborn fools who persist with their good ideas, and that some fraction of those actually have genuinely good ideas.
I fell for the idealized claim that a PhD is for original research. Usually it means original to your advisor or granting agency.
I must warn, therefore, about the danger of being too far ahead of the pack. I reasonably contend that my PhD research 1973-1977 allowed me to pursue highly original ideas that excited me a lot.
The dissertation was arguably the first on Nanotechnology, and the first on Artificial Life, and the first on Chaos in the Metabolism and Evolution. But it took 2 to 4 decades before the work -- even when published in refereed journals and proceedings -- was appreciated. My mistake was in solving questions that few people would be asking for another generation.
Sometimes I wondered if I was wrong to turn down another professor's offer to be my thesis advisor, work on a problem of his, and he guaranteed me a PhD within 2 years of starting.
However, for sheer joy of research and discovery, it can't be beat. In the short and medium run, it will NOT optimize revenue. I'm still waiting to see the long-term pay-off.
Thanks for the link. I want to somewhat clarify that quoted sentence. In many cases, peoples interests fall in already existing areas of research. If this is the case, there is no tension. The problem is what happens to those who are not that lucky, but who want to try something different? And, the problem that arises from this: how does the present support strategy influence our objectiveness when it comes to judging on the existing research projects? Nobody will risk to get his grants cut, and if necessary will defend the own program on the expenses of others. It is plain obvious that competition is not helpful to an objective evaluation of research programs, yet, that is exactly what is done today.
Why do you think many string theorists are so upset about Lee's book? It's not because he's actually saying something new. No, its because he's saying something they know: there are too many people working in that field as compared to others.
Of course, when it comes to the question whether to work on own projects or on supervised topics depends on the educational status. I am mostly talking about postdocs. Typically, postdocs are in their mid 30ies and have more than 10 years experience in the field. They are perfectly able to work on their own projects. When it comes to grad. studs, I'd say the balance is somewhere more towards supervision though I personally think creativity should generally be more supported.
Yes, it is very unfortunate that even those who eventually are in the position to follow their own ideas often stick to the mainstream. Maybe its a matter of habit. If you've played the game for 20 years and know how to do it, the most convenient thing to do is to just keep on playing it, esp. if it has turned out you're quite successful at it.
Given my experience of the past week, your post could not be more timely. There has been pressure ever since someone was a 16 and an undergraduate. What does this harassment say about the university? Why do universities continue to employ people like this?
My undergraduate and graduate thesis topics were chosen by my advisor. It took me a lot of time to just figure out what it was all about.
I got a tenured position very early (no postdoc), so I was soon able to do whatever I felt like doing, for any reason I pleased. So I just studied stuff that interested me a lot and/or would allow me to work with/learn from mathematicians I admired (not necessarily my seniors). I am now a full professor, and I keep learning new stuff and doing whatever I want, like most of my colleagues.
Thanks to everybody else for making me (and no doubt a large amount of mathematicians) feel very lucky indeed.