Awhile back I had a debate with some of my PhD friends over the type of dissertation project that was most likely to land you in a position at a Research I institution. We fell into 2 main camps.


The first group thought it best to pick a series of “safe projects”.  Our definition of safe project was one that had a high probability of yielding results that would meet your predictions and would build upon an existing framework.  Despite the fact that your results wouldn’t be super sexy or surprising, these experiments would show that you understand how to conduct sound science and contribute to an existing body of work.

The second group thought it best to pick a risky project that, should it be successful, would dramatically change our understanding of a particular phenomenon. Should it prove unsuccessful, however, you’re left with pretty much nothing.

At the heart of the debate was our desire to be attractive candidates for the precious few positions in academia that open up each year. Of course, an even smaller subset of these academic positions are at Research I institutions, where a number of the individuals in the debate are striving to end up.

Completing a safe project will likely land you at an institution with a heavy emphasis on teaching. After years of publishing sound science and establishing your name, then you may be able to make the jump to a Research I institution eventually.

The problem with being at a school with a less strong emphasis on teaching is that they usually can’t afford to give as much money to start up a new lab as a school with a stronger research emphasis might. Additionally, heavy teaching loads mean less time in the lab or in the field and less time to write papers. So we decided that a safe project could land you in a Research I institution eventually, but it might be a pretty long journey before you make it there.

A risky project that works out and results in a number of publications in big name journals will certainly boost your chances of getting into a good research institution early in your career. The monetary and facility support that you receive here will be much better than at a teaching institution, making it easier for you to conduct lots of great experiments and acquire high quality students to work in your lab. What researcher could ask for more?

On the other hand, if your project idea doesn’t work out, then you’re worse-off than you would have been had you done a safe project.  A series of post-doc positions can fix this mistake, but you’re once again years away from the coveted Research I position.

So what project do you choose?  Well, like so many things in science, we’ve probably set up more of a dichotomy than actually exists.  I think that the best solution is to set up a big project with one sexy, but risky experiment and a series of safe experiments.  You need 3 chapters for your dissertation anyway, right? I think that taking a risk on at least one of the chapters is worth it for the potentially big pay-off.

I’d be interested in hearing feedback from other graduate students on how they are choosing their dissertation or post-doc projects.  Additionally, I’d love to hear feedback from post-docs or professors on what they think makes a successful dissertation project (where success is defined as ending up at a Research I institution).

(NOTE: I do understand that outstanding research is conducted at non-Research I institutions.  Also, I think teaching is vitally needed and noble pursuit. I did not mean to downplay the importance of either of these points, I just personally have my heart set on a position at a Research I institution.)

17 Responses to “Picking the best dissertation project….”

  1. Christoph

    Someone should check if there are studies on what sort of project has what results. In such a study one would have to check how many people at prestigious research institutes (How would one go about measuring “prestigiousness”?) did conduct risky research (What constitutes riskiness? Are there any criteria that could be intersubjectively more acceptable than “I think it is.”? Maybe something like how much research was done into the subject before? How to define something so nonexistant as “subject”? When your research creates a whole new field, that would count, sure. If it’s a sub-field, yes. If it’s a sub-field of a sub-field? Eh, maybe. But once you arrive at testing whether or not a particular variable has any influence on another variable in a model that is important to a subject that belongs to the sub-field of a sub-field of a field of science (I’m looking at you, cognitive psychologists.), it might be a bit less fancy and.. Uh, I dunno, maybe that’s my prejudices talking.) and what the baserate of risky research is and..

    Oh my.

    Is there a journal of science research? As in research into science?

    Ho hum. I need to find out what search engines I could ask for guidance. I’d use Psyndex, but for that I’d have to use a VPN client. I’d use PubMed, but this hardly seems medical to me. I’d use google scholar, but seriously, with what key words?

    Eh. Maybe later.

    I enjoyed the blog post. 🙂

  2. Zen Faulkes

    No project on the planet that will help you end up at a Research I university, because search committees don’t hire projects. They hire people.

    Forgive the verbal trickery, but I do think it is important to realize that search committees are looking at the whole application package, not just doctoral projects. You won’t get a job if you give a crummy seminar or have an unreadable CV, regardless of how cool your doctoral project is.

    Trying to work out what project will get a job at a Research I institution is like trying to figure out what song will be a worldwide #1 hit. There are too many intangibles to guarantee success.

    • Christoph

      Yeah, because trying to optimize one factor of many never did anyone any good, ever. You need more for developing intelligence than food! Therefore, the increase in general intelligence that countries that underwent industrialization experienced can not have ANYTHING to do with better health and food distribution AT ALL!

      • Zen Faulkes

        Okay, that’s a fair cop.

        I think there’s too great an emphasis on a single project rather than developing a strong body of work.

    • weinersmith

      I agree. I didn’t mean to imply that picking a good dissertation project was the only important thing for landing a research institution gig, just one of many factors which you should be working on optimizing. 😉 Thanks for the link on !

  3. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock

    […] Picking the best dissertation project…. […]

  4. Jame

    I don’t see what’s so hard about this. Every academic tells me that their favorite time was as a grad student or post-doc. This IS the best time of your research career, so if you’re wasting it now fortune telling, you are likely not enjoying it and might as well get out of the game. Every successful academic or industry professional has told me that the secret to their success was being the best at what they were each day. If you want to maximize any set of external rewards in science, be it prestige, intellectual challenge, money, etc., you should leave. It’s simple practicality.

    The rewards are few and frankly small. This isn’t a path to rockstardome, and everyone is disappointed with where they end up. Many end up burning out or falling into existential crisis. Science just isn’t as important to society as we feel it should be. And not enough people are effective enough communicators to generate their own economy around their vision: those roles are reserved for the once-in-a-generation Carl Sagans. Look at the “rockstar” scientsts of today. They are too busy impressing themselves with their fame to really communicate to people, and that is a real shame (see, for instance, Cosmic Variance).

    I really think it is important to make the most of each day, doing the best at what you’re doing. As a grad student, all I want to do is be a great grad student, work hard, and maybe make some fun discoveries along the way. What else can you do but enjoy what you do, feeding off that energy to do more? That’s how I am ensuring I will be a valuable member in whatever group or organization that has the resources and desire to utilize my talents in the future. And it is how I am ensuring that wherever I end up, I continue to make the most with what I have.

  5. Ann C

    You are omitting one crucial thing. Riskier topics may not give you the result that you want/expect, but a good scientist knows how to tell the story to still make it cool. I think that’s what gets you in the R I. I agree to a point with Zen that you’re being judged by far more than your grad school project, BUT that said, one pub in Nature or Science as a graduate students sets you up for the rest of your career. So I actually think your dichotomy is flawed in that it’s more of a correlation to the personality of the graduate student and how they will attempt to navigate their career – safer project come from either 1) less experience, 2) more cautious, or 3) less research oriented people where as risker projects come from 1) more well-read, 2) riskier, or 3) more research oriented people. Just my two cents…but interesting topic. If you were here I’d love to grab a beer and talk about it more.

  6. Mazzle

    The best dissertation project is one that is safe, but that can be “tarted up” to seem sexy. That’s how mine was (graduated from Davis, still miss the place terribly!) – the experiments were to get ecological parameter estimates for validating a model – it didn’t really matter what the results were.

    If the model agreed with the field data, great! – the model is correct (or at least consistent)

    If the model didn’t agree with the field data, great! The model that people are using is wrong!

    Nice project, highly publishable no matter what the results. Safe, but sexy.

    Now TT at a major R1.

    • weinersmith

      Awesome! Any chance you’re willing to tell me who you are? 😉 Also, what does TT stand for?

      • Ambitwistor

        TT = tenure track (assistant professor)

  7. Sean

    On the basis on no data whatsoever, I would assume that relatively safe research (thus many publications), with links to high risk research at the institution(s) you are interested, in is best.

    The researchers do not go into “risky” topics without some personal commitment and interest, so they are likely to remember people who talk to them about it (as opposed to challenging them for trying). The fact that you are talking to them for reasons related to your own research will not go unnoticed. And if they have the ability to get “risky” projects funded, they are likely to have the ability to influence selection committees.

    Do this with a couple, and apply shortly after one of them “succeeds” and gets to expand their group. The “many publications” will help sway the generic members of the committee.

    Later, after tenure if it still exists then, you can do your awn high-risk research to try to win the “many things named after me” lottery.

    (A “preview” option for the comment system would be great. I blame all my typos on the lack of a preview option.)

  8. aparadekto

    Hey, I can’t view your site properly within Opera, I actually hope you look into fixing this.

    • weinersmith

      Is Opera a browser for mobile devices? I’m not familiar with it. My site is built using WordPress software, so I’m pretty much at the mercy of their compatabilities. I’ll check to see if someone has built a plugin to address this issue. Thanks for letting me know!

  9. Morris

    I think that in your sixth paragraph, beginning “The problem with being at a school with a less strong emphasis on teaching …” you meant to say “… less strong emphasis on research“.

    I use Opera as my main browser (on a large-screen laptop), and have no problems with this site, or any other WordPress site. aparadekto may have some local configuration problems.

    (No comments on the actual content of this post; I just got a (non-research) Master’s, part-time nights at what I’m sure is a Research I institution, 24 years after my BS, and I’m glad to be done with academe.)

  10. tagesgeldkonto

    Bertrand Russell~ Man needs for his happiness not only the enjoyment of this or that but hope and enterprise and change.

  11. Delilah Cumberledge

    added this to digg

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