Monday, June 29, 2020

How to Find a Grad Project That Fulfills You. Step 1: Identify Your Critical Ingredients

By Kai Chan

This is part of a series, How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

Many students find their graduate projects by being handed one by a supervisor. Many continue on with research from their previous degree, with small variations. After years as Graduate Advisor for our program’s 100+ PhD and Master’s students and a decade as supervisor for more than twenty of my own brilliant students, I know that—if not intentionally chosen—both strategies risk regret, resentment, and/or student-supervisor relationship breakdown.

Because grad research can set the course for your career to a degree far greater than most first jobs, your* choice of project is absolutely crucial. It has got to be your* intentional choice.

But even when students find themselves with the freedom to choose a project, with a supportive supervisor and flexible funding, it still often goes awry. I know, because I was just such a blessed but unwitting PhD student.

I went to Princeton to study conservation ecology with Simon Levin. I wanted to study something that related to global resource use by a burgeoning human population and the underpinnings of the unfolding ecological crisis. But I got sidetracked by a collaboration with my good friend Brian Moore on mathematical models for the process of species diversification.

Icing. Not a cake, despite initial intentions. Pikrepo

I didn’t appreciate at the time how doing so would strongly set the course for my career. I had weekly requests for help with the phylogenetic-tree-symmetry software I developed. I had job opportunities in evolution but had lots of trouble selling my skills to conservation NGOs, for whom the next five million years of evolution was at best a distant consideration. For me, given my fundamental objective to contribute to meaningful ecological change now, this was a rut I had to break.

As a candy and icing-loving young adult, a metaphor came to mind. I had set out to bake an amazing multi-layered cake, but in the 11th hour when the cake needed to be mixed and baked, I found myself only with chocolate ganache, butter-cream icing, marzipan, and sprinkles.

Point is: my cake/PhD lacked substance—of the kind that mattered most to me. I'm still proud of it, but it didn't fulfil me.

From my experience supervising and advising students, I know I’m far from the only one who has troubles like this. A PhD is a daunting multi-year project that requires foresight, insight, strategy and execution to dedicate oneself despite innumerable distractions. Even thinking just about academic ones, there’s the lure of ‘sexy’ but insubstantial problems, fun collaborators, high-impact and easy papers, etc. True success means steering away from those distractions sometimes, if they take you away from what really matters.

What really matters takes many forms. Some people are committed to particular fields of study, perhaps because of shared values and epistemological approaches. Some are drawn to particular communities of practice, disciplines, methods, geographies, or even specific overarching research questions. For others, most of these dimensions don’t matter, but they are wholly committed to a specific theory of change. We all have our own visions and goals for our future careers.

Step 1 to finding a fulfilling project, then, is to know thyself**.

So the task is to identify as early as possible the constituents of a fulfilling project, considering its implications for your future career. These are your critical ingredients (the bolded elements above, plus more).

To help students identify these, I developed what I call “The Critical Ingredients Document”. The first class of students in RES 602 found this challenging, but insightful. Many struggled to identify their own theories of change, mostly because these theories about how their work might contribute to real-world change were entirely implicit. Others found that their project aligned with a theory of change that they didn’t wholly believe (e.g., that providing evidence to decision-makers would improve decision-making towards more just and sustainable processes and outcomes). Yet others realized, as we proceeded through the rest of the course by referring back to their critical ingredients, that their project didn’t mesh with their visions for themselves and their scholarly identities. I hope their supervisors won’t hold it against me….

If this document sounds like it will be helpful to you, you can find it here. All I ask is that you let me know (, that you give credit, and that you ask the same of anyone with whom you share it.

The main sections are as follows, very briefly:

Vision (how you'd like to see yourself)

Goals (relevant aspirational statements of what you seek in life)

Theories of Change (your notion of how change happens and how it might happen, particularly in the context of your contribution through your project and broader career—more to come)

Strengths and Limitations (your own endowments and bits that hold you back)

Fields (that you're committed to)

Disciplines (that are central to your identity)

Methodological/Analytical Tools (that you're particularly drawn to learn and use)

Geographical Study Areas (places you feel you must study)

Professional Networks (people you're committed to connecting with)

Professional Activities/Skills (activities and skills beyond research that are core to your identity)

Overarching Research Questions (particular questions you're committed to better understand)

Do you have a story to tell of a cakeless-cake? Do you have any additional ‘critical ingredients’ that I didn’t include? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

*Here I mean students. In this series in general, students are my primary audience, although I hope that professors also will have a genuine interest in their students feeling fulfilled, and that they will find this series useful towards that end.

**This echoes Steve Schneider’s guidance about science communication.

Next up: Why Some PhD Courses Shouldn't Have Grades

And: Identifying the Problem (Step 1.1): An Impactful Interdisciplinary Research Project Is One that Fulfills You

Previous: Understand How Others Go about Research. Step 0: Let Experts Reveal Their Messy Realities

The Intro to this series (with links to the full set): How to Write a Winning Proposal—in 10 Hard Steps

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