I remember often being on autopilot as a grad student and postdoc. I was so focused on ticking off my todo list and trying to make rapid progress that I forgot to periodically step back and re-evaluate whether I was still doing the right experiments. When I gave myself permission to take the extra time to think of ways to complement or improve on current approaches, it resulted in better ideas. I was convinced that carving out time to challenge my assumptions and re-prioritize experiments was important but it didn’t happen as frequently as it should have.
I think this is a fairly common phenotype. There’s a lot of pressure to produce and it’s easier to defer to your own previous judgement (or your advisor’s) than to re-derive the rationale for every experiment in real time. In thinking of how best one might challenge assumptions and experimental path, I propose the following:
1) Question everything. What is the biological question being asked in any given experiment? Why is this experiment the right one to tackle this question or the best thing to do first? What do you think will happen and why? What are some other possibilities for what you might see? What would it mean if these less expected possibilities were the outcome? Is there an orthogonal way you can test the outcome (regardless of the result) to convince yourself that the result is true? You might think you know the answers to all of these questions for your experiments, but as you collect more data, your assumptions and best path forward may shift—sometimes dramatically. If you’re not asking these questions often enough, you might be veering away from your goal.
2) Brainstorm. Set up regular brainstorming sessions to come up with new ideas, even if it’s only a few minutes each day or 10-15 minutes each week. Some of the ideas will be terrible but a few might be worth pursuing. Some might even be groundbreaking. Importantly, the exercise of regular brainstorming can help it become second nature, even when you haven’t carved out time for it. The ideas also don’t have to be limited to a set of experiments, your own project or even necessarily be about work. You’ll get better at this no matter what kind of ideas you’re coming up with.
3) See more things and talk to more people. We all know that going to seminars and conferences is important. We also know that going out of our way to talk science with a broad range of scientists is a good thing. However, when we get busy, these things are easy to drop. We hole up and buckle down, shutting ourselves off from an exchange of ideas. Remind yourself regularly not to do science in isolation and talk to others. Particularly if you’re introverted (as so many of us are), it will be a big effort to put yourself out there and discuss with others. However, your science will improve as a result.
4) Challenge your PI. If you’re not totally convinced about something you’re doing, go back to #1 above and see if you can confirm the rationale. If you think a different approach/experiment is better, challenge your PI and make a case for why your plan is the way to go. There’s a good chance that truly nothing will make your PI happier than you convincing them that your idea is better. Even if you discuss and are now sure that the current path is the right one, both parties will feel better that you’ve reinforced the strategy.
5) Above all, enjoy the sleuthing! The detective work that goes into charting new scientific territory and making sure you’ve got the most clever approach to a tough problem is what makes this job so great. If you’re feeling in an experimental rut, let yourself dig into the problem and come up with new ideas that can reinvigorate your passion for science.