I have a very clear memory of one of my postdoc lab's post-SfN debriefings--all of us bleary-eyed, with piles of coffee-stained, semi-legible notes in front of us (this was before iPads, can you IMAGINE???). We went around the table, each informing our PI (who had obviously been too busy hob-nobbing to see talks or posters) about the exciting things we'd learned. The thing that struck me at this particular meeting was the student who said, "well, there are a lot of people studying [broad trendy thing that she'd only recently become interested in], which is BAD."
But is that actually bad? I mean, I get it, nobody wants to be scooped. But are there not enough research questions about broad trendy thing to go around? If you realize that some people are already working on the basics of a hot new topic, maybe this is your chance to jump ahead and do the cool stuff! Get a little creative, right?
I realize this isn't everyone's attitude - some people love competition. The secrecy, the anxiety, burning the midnight oil to ensure that they are first to publish the Big Story. But as a new-ish PI, I don't have the time (the tenure clock ticks louder every damn day), the money, or the person-power to get into these kinds of races and risk losing. I would rather spend my time thinking of new questions to answer.
One of my grade school teachers had us do an exercise in which we had to imagine we were alone in a room with nothing but a paper clip. She had us write down 10 things we could do with the paper clip. Then 10 more, then 10 more. As you might imagine, the last set was far more creative and interesting than the first - demonstrating to us that our brains are capable of nearly bottomless ideas, when they're forced to keep thinking.
There's an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a few months, as I've tried to envision a way to get my grants funded by more than just NIMH. I've been pretty excited about it, as it would represent a real new line of research for me and the lab, and the plan has been to submit an R21 for the June deadline. I knew that in a general sense, it was a bit of a hot topic, but I think I didn't realize quite how SMOKING HOT it was until recently, and I'll admit, my heart sank a little when it hit me how many groups that are bigger and richer than mine are working on similar questions with similar approaches. Waaaaah, I am not as original as I thought!
But then I said to myself, self, is that all you're capable of? If you feel this ruins your whole plan, perhaps you're not meant to branch in this direction after all. Stop moping, and work your way down the idea list, which is only going to get more interesting and awesome. Science is the paperclip exercise, on repeat forever. If you think you're out of ideas, I'd say it's time to turn over the reins.
*I realize this is not an actual word, but for some reason when my brain thought of the word "competition" it made me think of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," and there you have it. I kind of like it, actually.