I recently started as an assistant professor at Boston University. Moving from a high-tempo research group with a constant flurry of activity to an empty office is a pretty jarring transition. Having an abundance of time to think was very welcome, however, as it was the first, and perhaps last, time in my research career when I was presented with a truly blank slate to fill with my own ideas. In addition to getting better acquainted with the research environment in my new department, my main goal in the first week was to answer a very pragmatic question: What is the first experiment I will tell my first graduate student to do?
It may seem strange to question one’s first experiment when starting a research group. Getting to a faculty position means writing detailed proposals based on your ideas and defending those ideas in front of committees of engaged faculty. It is reasonable to think that this extensive preparation would make it obvious how to begin the actual research. I talked to a number of young professors, however, and many told me they didn’t end up working on the specific ideas they proposed to get hired. It’s unclear if this is because of meandering interests or if projects sometimes look better in proposals than on the bench, but my perspective certainly did change when presented with the reality of instructing a student to do a project.
I wanted to be sure I was comfortable with the subject matter so I could advise a student through every step of the process, but I also wanted to follow my curiosity to areas tangential to my prior work. After doing research in other people’s groups for a dozen years, this was the first time my work was truly driven by my own ideas and I could ask students to work on topics irrespective of their short-term payoff. Finally, there was a strong sense that these first few projects would define the tone and theme of the research, so selecting them seemed like a delicate task.
Ultimately, I never settled on a single first project. As a student, I always appreciated having a say in my research. People work a lot harder when they are passionate about their project. So, I spent the time coming up with a handful of introductory projects that I was very excited about and prepared to let prospective students pick their favorite. These projects happened to be different from the ones I proposed as part of faculty applications.
It is worth mentioning that I felt a deep urge to get things going quickly, as experimentalists need data like fish need water. It was difficult to suppress the instinct to dive into a lab and dedicate my time to experiments. As Professor Mark Hersam once advised me, being a professor means learning to live with experiments not being done with your own hands. So, I did my best to settle into that role by reading, making lists of potential projects, purchasing supplies, and discussing these ideas over coffee with new colleagues.