If you’ve been involved in research for more than a couple of years, chances are you quite quickly start to accumulate a list, even if only in your mind, of Things It Would Be Neat To Do. These could be things that you identify as gaps while pursuing your main research theme, or ideas that spark out of a paper you happened to leaf through while waiting for a meeting to start.
And typically starting around the later years of a PhD, and through postdocs and early career positions, the flood of ideas for things to do keeps, well, flooding. You see gaps, methods that need improving, sites that need investigating, and questions that need answering. And very quickly you realize that you do not have time to do it all.
And so it begins: the search for minions!
Or rather, students, collaborators, or others upon whom you can foist your ideas, your existing data, your passion, in the hopes that they will take the torch and run. At some stage, the list becomes too large for your head, and perhaps like me you make a nice text document on your desktop called “Project Ideas.txt”, and just keep adding to it as the ideas pop in, with the hopes that when a prospective minion comes along, you’ll have just the project for them.
But good heavens is that ever difficult. Perhaps I’ve had a skewed view, having never actually worked in a university, but I have tried several mechanisms to try and get homes for existing datasets, or convince others that the project ideas I’ve had are worth pursuing and met with exceptionally low success.
A few years ago, I tried setting up a page here called Languishing Projects, and every 6 months or so I would update it, send around some tweets or emails, and I might get one or two queries. Usually, though, the query didn’t go anywhere because the querier wasn’t at the right career stage (I had several emails from first or second year undergrads – and not to say that those cohorts aren’t suitable for research, but as they would have been in different cities than I, I couldn’t provide them with the mentorship and guidance needed for projects done at that career stage).
It seems ironic, but I just couldn’t give away data.
Now, some of you would surely suggest simply posting the data somewhere like figshare and someone, somewhere would use it. This wasn’t practical because I wasn’t the sole owner of these data, and in many cases, the data would have needed some significant attention before I would want them released into the wild.
A particular challenge I’ve found is funding and recruiting to studentships. I do marvel at PIs who seemingly receive countless emails asking about being a student in their lab – I can’t remember the last time I had one, let alone one that was in my field (again, though, I’m not at a degree-granting institution). And in the few cases where I’ve been able to find a partnering faculty member, the number of applicants, despite quite broad advertising, has been quite low. And university faculty also have their own flood of ideas, so why would they want to take on yet more?
And then there’s the funding. The way the UK funds postgraduate research is, in my view, quite silly. Students don’t apply to PIs, but to thematic or regional Doctoral Training Partnerships, and those admitted to these DTPs then must be wooed by PIs with projects in the hopes that the student will finally settle on theirs. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition, but it means that if a prospective student contacts me, and I think they might be a great fit for a project I have, they can be rejected by the DTP and that’s the end of that. The success rate, particularly for some (like the London DTP) is more akin to a major NERC or NSF grant, <7% last year.
To say nothing of funding for postdocs.
I think that part of the difficulty is that while I work on seabirds and islands, many of the project ideas are desk- or collections-based. This is advantageous on one hand because they involve very little cost, but at the same time, most students in ecology & conservation are in it (largely) for the field work. Which costs money. Sigh.
So as I often, too, I took to Twitter to ask folks how they dealt with the flood of project ideas. The response were basically to prioritize those that had either students or money associated with them. Not great for me, since mine had neither. And without either of those, partnering with a university PI becomes increasingly difficult (because, well, students and money are hard to find, it seems).
But rather than have this a whinging tirade, my question, dear reader, is what do you do with the projects for which you have no time? The bits of data that could be something if they just had some time put into them (time that none of us have)? Are you resigned to letting them slide off this mortal coil?
And lastly, many of my languishing projects or Ideas That Have Little Chance Of Being Realized are perfectly suitable for honours or UK/Australian MSc/MRes degrees, and some could be bundled up into a nice PhD. So if you fancy collaborating, or have a steady stream of students in need of projects, let’s chat!