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.)