One of the most important lessons I learnt from my seven years of graduate studies is the difference between simply ‘doing’ a research project and ‘owning’ one and how to make the transition from a doer to a researcher.
I started as very much a doer. During my master’s-degree work studying proteins involved in Alzheimer’s disease, at Wuhan University, China, I relied on my supervisor — biochemist Yi Liang — to assign me to a research project, to propose ideas and sometimes to plan out sets of experiments for me. I simply had to follow protocols and produce data. I would read papers, but just the most relevant ones on the particular protein I was studying, or those involving the same methods that I was using. When I read those papers, it was to benefit my own experiments: I wasn’t looking for any deeper knowledge or understanding.
There are advantages to this approach: once everything had been mapped out for me, I was well on my way to getting my name on a paper, thanks to the data contributions I’d made. But following instructions without developing a deep understanding is not how students become successful scientists, even if they get their name on a paper.
Doing versus owning a research project
My interest in protein structures continued during my PhD programme at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. At first, I maintained the mindset I had while pursuing my master’s: I devoted myself to laboratory work and generating data. My PhD supervisor, structural biologist Gary Shaw, didn’t give me the step-by-step instructions I was used to, however. This often confused me and made it hard for me to find an obvious way forward. Our discussions on the project always remained ‘open ended’, leaving uncertainties for me to solve and decisions for me to make.
So, instead of being told what to do next, I learnt how to think about what confused me. I tried to answer my questions by myself, and to increasingly dictate the path of my own research. My PhD supervisor constantly encouraged and empowered me to come up with ideas, proposals and experiments. He told me, “You should own your research project instead of just doing it. By the time you graduate, your goal is to be the most knowledgeable person about your research in the whole world.”
Road to owning your research
Owning my research project in this way was deeply intimidating at first: I no longer had a decision-maker with more experience to follow. But as I developed as a scientist by reading and thinking at a deeper level, and as my excitement grew from following my own curiosity, I overcame this feeling. By the time I ended the second year of my PhD programme, I felt much more confident in my abilities as a researcher — not just as a data-gatherer.
Owning my project triggered some deep thinking that further inspired me to establish hypotheses, methodologies and collaborations with researchers around the world. In the last year of my PhD programme, I e-mailed neuroscientist Sandra Cooper at the University of Sydney, Australia, to discuss a few technical questions about her 2017 publication in the Journal of Biological Chemistry1. She kindly connected me to computational biologist Bradley Williams at the Jain Foundation in Seattle, Washington.
This was the start of a long-term collaboration between our labs, and I got to learn a lot about computational biology from them. The collaboration changed the direction of my project to some extent and brought a completely new perspective to my research and my lab.
Here are some tips I’d give anyone who wants to learn to own their research project.
1. Think beyond day-to-day bench work. Even if most of your time is allocated to doing lab work, don’t let it take over and become the core of your work. Instead, spend time thinking about why you’re doing particular experiments. What are you trying to achieve? What can you learn? What information is missing? All lab work should be driven by a clear rationale based on the literature, and motivated by a desire to answer scientific questions.
2. Make short- and long-term plans. Your supervisor might plan for you sometimes, but it’s important to be your own pilot. Make to-do lists for each day, week and month, so you know what you’re expecting and what you should prioritize. By doing this, you will learn how to make adjustments and better manage your time. Set goals along the way and enjoy every achievement — big and small.
3. Use all available resources. Science should not be a lone battle. Your supervisor, your lab mates and people from other labs are all resources that can help you with your research. There’s also a rich store of online advice and tools you can use to support yourself. For example, I found great help from Q&A forums on ResearchGate, a social-networking website for scientists. Don’t shy away from initiating conversations with researchers outside your department or institution if you think they could be helpful.
4. Communicate your research. Discussing your research at seminars and conferences, and with members of the public, requires your full understanding of it: I found that speaking at conferences helped me to discover what I didn’t understand in my field. Communication sparks collaboration and allows you to look at your research in contexts you might have not considered, which could in turn inspire ideas.
Of course, self-directed research has downsides. It won’t always give you the best results. You’re also likely to go through more trial and error. Not all the data you collect will be publishable — and some of it might feel like it’s downright useless. Certainly, the road to get my PhD work published was a winding, bumpy one. But nothing is more rewarding than owning up to your failures, pushing past each obstacle and finding a way to move forward.