Choosing an Important Project: The First Stage to Getting Research Published

Analytical Chemistry

The following editorial originally appeared in Analytical Chemistry.

This is the season that faculty spend a lot of time discussing research projects with potential graduate students. Like many analytical chemistry faculty, I am affiliated with several graduate departments and training programs, each of which have multiple dates to meet with visiting students. Thus, I find myself involved in graduate recruiting for what appears to be an ever increasing number of weeks each year.

In discussing research project ideas with potential graduate students, they have asked how I, as a principal investigator, develop my research ideas. I find that some students do not realize the time, energy, and thought that go into the design of a good graduate student research project.

On a related note, I have had several authors complain about getting papers rejected even though the rejected paper represented the major output of one of their graduate student’s careers, and they cannot fathom how the reviewers or editor called their student’s work “incremental” and not important. As research directors, we want to make sure all of our student’s projects are significant and important.

Said differently, the ideas that I present to potential students are as good as I can make them. Let us not worry about how we initially arrive at research ideas, but instead, let us think about how they are developed into an available graduate student research project. After creating an idea, I spend several months thinking about it, modifying it and considering it from every possible angle. This is the process of creating a grant proposal to fund the student. After writing down many details and placing it into the context of everyone else’s research in the field, I then submit it to a group of colleagues whose job it is to evaluate my ideas. These unknown colleagues are so critical that only a small fraction of my ideas receive the funding stamp of approval. If the idea is not good enough (and many are not), I rewrite and resubmit, and yet again if need be. While I am not sure about your ideas, only a fraction of my ideas make it through this process.

Now that I have a funded project, I can drop it onto the unsuspecting graduate student as if it was an idea from last week, and not the result of more than a year of hard work. While securing funding is a long and painful process, it helps ensure our students work on important research.

Even if you have an easier source of funding than a competitive external grant, I would go further and state that graduate research efforts should matter as each student requires considerable effort in terms of financial resources and time. Taking into account the 5.5 years of teaching assistant/research assistant/fellowship support for the average Ph.D. student, including salary, benefits, tuition, and indirect costs, and then adding supplies, equipment, and instrument time, a graduate student in the U.S.A. oftentimes costs the government and university more than a quarter million dollars. A project costing this much should matter.

From the graduate student perspective, they have just over 60 months of time to allocate to their graduate career; they need to use this limited resource wisely. For example, while learning every analytical approach used in a large group may sound useful, it likely will detract from their ability to advance a few significant research areas. Graduate student time is valuable, and the research director should encourage the student to spend their time on important training opportunities and on significant research projects. While graduate research efforts may result in a combination of both substantial and incremental publications, or may include publication of preliminary results, the important overarching goal(s) of their efforts should be clear.

Of course, projects that involve important research areas that are well planned and executed by promising graduate students will result in exciting science and thus will be published in the best journals, including Analytical Chemistry.

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