Journey or Destination?

July 23, 2006 at 1:33 pm | Posted in research | Leave a comment

I’m going to a conference in Edinburgh in September and I’m excited for a few reasons. For starters, it will be my first conference presentation. Also, this conference is more specialised than the only other one I’ve been too, so it will be good to hear more talks that are related to my research. More personally, my Dad’s side of my family is all from Scotland and I’ve never been there before, so I’m looking forward to taking some time off to go exploring once the conference is over.

Yesterday, I spent some time thinking about the non-scientific part of the trip. I borrowed a couple of guidebooks from the library and spent most of the day picking things I’d like to see and planning potential itineraries. To begin with, I just made a list of everything I thought might be fun, but the list quickly grew far too long and I realised there was no way I could fit everything in.¬† I tried to choose just the places I was really interested in, but they were spread out all over the country. Although I did figure out a possible way to get to all of them, it would involve a lot of time just travelling between points and only superficial visits. Then, I tried to pick out places that were near each other within a couple of nearby regions. At first, it seemed like a more reasonable itinerary, but I kept adding things that didn’t make the previous list, just because they were right there, on my way. Plus, I’m still longing to squeeze in some of the further places, too.

I’m still working on designing a perfect itinerary (with room to change my mind once I’m there, of course), but I realised that I’m having a similar problem with my research.

My project has been following a fairly defined path since I started in the lab, but now it’s at a stage where I have to choose what direction(s) to take next and I’m feeling somewhat unfocussed. So far, I’ve tried a few things, just because they’re “right there”, so to speak, and while they’ve given me some information, I don’t really think they’ve moved the project forward.

Planning the perfect itinerary is half the fun of travel, since it’s a way of enjoying the trip before it’s time to get on the plane. Research doesn’t have that delay between planning and execution. I’ve been putting off putting the same kind of thought into my research plan, because it seemed more important just to keep moving. I hadn’t realised I’d gone out of range of my old map, though. I guess it’s time to draw up a new one.

But, what’s the right approach to take? When travelling, I’d usually prefer to see a smaller number of things in depth, than rush around all the major places with barely enough time to take a photo. Both could potentially be useful strategies for this stage of my project, however. Maybe it would be good to get a general idea of how my system works by looking quickly at a range of different situations. I can always come back once I know what’s most interesting. Or maybe I’ve spent too long already looking at the big picture and I should start to focus.

One way of choosing an itinerary is to map out the figures of a potential paper, and do the experiments to fill in the blanks. This seems like a good way to make sure the experiments I do are actually adding to the story I’m trying to build up, but I wonder if I would miss anything along the way. Is there scientific merit to just wandering the backroads where my fancy takes me? I suppose there’s no guarantee my experiments will keep me on the track I was aiming for, anyway.

I guess there’s also a question of whether, as a graduate student, it’s an appropriate time to wander. Perhaps it’s better to have a plan that lets me get some results and publications and get out of here.

Actually, designing experiments to fit a paper doesn’t really solve my problem. There are papers that describe one path in detail and others that try to map a whole country. Maybe aiming for a particular journal would help. It would have to be a pretty uncharted country to make a high-impact paper, for example.

Maybe I should’ve have drawn up a map for this post, too, because I think I may be going in circles. Anyone have any advice for me? Do you have a preference for a particular style of scientific journey?

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