As a PhD student taking on a new research project, I have spent much of my time the past few months reading and learning about an unfamiliar scientific field. My work/time is funded by a NIH grant recently awarded to my advisor, so the foundation of what I will be studying has been thoroughly laid out for me.

My primary task in reading scientific literature has been to understand the significance and justification for the experiments my advisor proposed in her grant. However, my advisor has (very rightly) encouraged me to come up with additional/alternative experiments to perform, based on my literature reading.

The opportunity to propose my own experiments is a necessary skill for me to develop as part of my doctoral training. It also helps me to feel like I am intellectually contributing to my own project, rather than simply completing tasks and experiments my advisor has designed. This is the hallmark difference between a research scientist (with a PhD) and a research technician (without).

In addition, reading into peripheral research in our field not discussed in her grant allows my advisor to become more familiar with others’ new and exciting work. While there are some selfish motives in biomedical research, the ultimate goal of our work is to benefit patients, so we always want to pursue the best research hypotheses, even if they are different from ones we have already come up with.

My current dilemma is that there are so many new and exciting research ideas in the literature, I’m struggling to decide which I should pursue in my limited time here. Furthermore, as there are new papers published every week/month, how do you know when to stop focusing on reading and start performing experiments?

I’m not saying that I would stop reading entirely, as it is too important to always be familiar with the cutting edge research in your field. I have thus far been unable to find the line where I have come up with enough connected unanswered questions that I can stop developing new questions and start finding answers to the ones I’ve already got.

I know that I will need to work with my advisor to choose which questions to answer, but as someone who doesn’t like to leave questions unanswered, it is frustrating to know that I will only have time to pursue a finite number of questions in my time as a PhD student. I suppose that is why people spend their entire careers in academic biomedical research.

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Posted by Megan Livingston

Ms. Livingston is a PhD student studying Biochemistry & Cell Biology at UT MD Anderson/UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

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