Very competitious*

Mar 06 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

9 responses so far

  • Bill Skaggs says:

    My personal view is that the right approach is to ask yourself, *what is the most important question I'm capable of answering?*, and then do your best to answer it. Of course there is a risk of getting scooped, but working on topics of mariginal interest is guaranteed to lose in the long run. Also, students are much happier working on hot topics, because there are lots of people interested in hearing about their results.

  • I love the paperclip analogy and will keep it in the back of my mind when the thought of fierce competition turns me into a deer in the headlights.

  • eeke says:

    I really like the paper clip exercise. I detest "me too" type of efforts, though. It's one thing for two labs to simultaneously but independently publish the same result (and this is good, because it strengthens the merit of the finding). But entirely another when you see the same lab (or labs) trying to chase interesting work that other people have already done. I find that boring, and like you, with such limited resources, would rather do something different.

  • Bashir says:

    My research area has become increasingly more popular and competitive in the last 10 years or so. I have mixed feeling about it. It's certainly a good sign that people are interested, and it does drive the research faster and (hopefully) better. But now there's just shit to deal with that used to be a lot more low key. I just had paper revisions come back where the reviewer asked why I didn't cite a very relevant paper that literally came out between the time I submitted and the reviewer got the paper. Stuff like this is happening more and more often.

    So basically I'm finding more often my first few passes at what to do with the paper clip are coming up in papers from a few years ago. So I have to be more on the ball with what others are doing with their paper clips.

  • pyrope says:

    When I read your post title it sounded like the Stevie Wonder song in my head 🙂

  • NatC says:

    A friend of mine said to me during a similar panic of mine "The more the merrier". He believes it makes it easier to publish because people are interested in it. He advocates approaching with a different angle and to remember "You don't have to be first, you just have to be right".
    I don't know whether he is right or not, but I find it somewhat comforting.

  • Ola says:

    One of the most important (IMHO) things my post-doc' mentor taught me is not to become too attached to ideas. The problem with this deer-in-the-headlights thinking, is it completely ignores the unknown unknowns (that old Donald Rumsfeld military analogy). The people you should be worried about are not the ones you've heard of, the ones you spoke to at a meeting, the ones who you might be able to collaborate with one day. No. You should worry about the group you don't even know about in Podunkville Asia or beyond. That's who's going to scoop you.

    The moment you realize that ideas are cheap / free, and your competition is the entire planet, you can be free to actually drill down on what you're interested in. Sure, if it makes you feel secure then hide your results from the BSD down the hall, but you're far from safe. There's 7 billion brains out there, and you've got to be pretty darned conceited to think that yours is the only one that thought of a particular idea.

  • Mikka says:

    Here's another parable for you. I was doing a triathlon once, and the swim part was out the beach, past two marker buoys and back. If you've ever done one of these you know that it can get really crowded and messy. I kept swimming and noticed that I wasn't having as much trouble navigating around people (or them swimming over me), and I felt pretty happy with myself thinking that I had outswam everyone else. Actually, I had swam so far off course that the harbor constable had to come out with his dinghy to point me in the right direction, lest I end up in Connecticut.

    Moral: if you have no competition, chances are you're going the wrong way. Or you're an unmitigated genius, in which case ignore this.

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