The Importance of Side Projects

The Importance of Side ProjectsLike food, water and deodorant, the importance of the side project cannot be overstated.

The rationale behind voluntarily piling extra experiments on to our already busy schedules can best be explained in gambling terms: the more bets on the table, the greater our chance of winning one.

When selecting a primary research project, Uri Alon provided an excellent strategy that balances risk and reward (see How to choose a good scientific problem).  But as we all know, there are no guarantees in science.  To minimize the chance of spending three years on a project only to show that our hypothesis was conclusively, 100%, beyond a shadow of a doubt wrong, we should pick up a side project… or two.

Strategy for picking a side project.
The side project is a great opportunity to test the extremes of the “Alon curve” (more formally known as the Pareto frontier).  Pick two of them.  One project is hard but could lead to a major breakthrough (high risk, high reward), the other is easy and would represent an incremental step forward (low risk, low reward).  Sometimes it’s the small, easy projects that open the doors to much bigger ones.

Criteria for designing side projects.

  • They should not require expensive reagents or instrumentation that we don’t already have access to.  Side projects should fit in seamlessly to our daily workflow.
  • They should be related to our main project and ideally support it.  We hope to expand our main project, not detract from it.
  • They should be projects that do not require more attention than our main project. Again, these are side projects…for now (see below).

Managing the side projects.
The main project always takes priority.  This is very important.  Side experiments should be squeezed in during downtime (like incubations) or set up just before going home.  Although this means the side projects will move slowly, they should never interfere with the main project.

Should the boss know about them?
This is certainly an individual choice and care should be taken when making it.  Personally, my side projects were always kept a secret from the boss.  I’m certainly not condoning deception, just a little delay in what they know about… Many bosses look at side projects as distractions, taking time away during incubations when we should be thinking about our main projects.  The reality is, we think about our projects all the time – in the shower, on the train, in the grocery store, in our dreams (or nightmares)…  What’s that saying about the forest and the trees?…  Sometimes the side project provides a needed fresh perspective.

What if the side project starts working?
Here’s where it really gets fun.  If the project’s been kept a secret, we now have the pleasure of walking into the boss’ office and dropping a pile of unexpected data on their desk.  In my experience, this has never gone poorly… PIs love data.  They also love group members who take initiative to push a project forward.

It’s at these times when the side project can evolve into the new main project.  However, a meeting should be held to discuss the situation with the boss, particularly if additional time or resources will be required to pursue the exciting new findings.

Why bother with the side projects?
Aside from the increased opportunity for success, side projects play an important role in the psyche of a scientist.  When times are tough in lab, side projects provide a welcomed spark of excitement that helps keep things interesting.  Moreover, what’s the worst thing that can happen?  None of them work.  Sure it hurts, but your luck won’t stay down forever.  Get out some more chips and double down.  All you need is one good hand…

Have any advice on side projects?  Think keeping them quiet is flirting with disaster?

2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. 13columns

    wrote on August 16, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    when i was a grad student, a postdoc in the lab told me the same thing. i always try to have a couple of ideas on the back burner that i turn to when i've got a little extra time or when i want to throw my project out the window!

  2. BenchFly's Guide to Year 3 of Graduate School | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on September 2, 2009 at 12:03 am

    […] Finally, start a side project.  See how to manage them in our post The Importance of Side Projects. […]

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