This is a guest post by Chen Guttman, a Ph.D. candidate in structural biology and a content writer and community liaison for Labguru.
I’m in my fourth year of my Ph.D. in structural biology and biochemistry at Ben Gurion University and that Bad Project video resembles a good chunk of my recent life. If you’re a grad student like me, chances are you share the pain.
At some point in your graduate careers you may find yourself working on a notoriously troublesome, difficult project (a “BAD project”). It may be the project your PI just won’t let stop, passed down like a sentence of doom from a miserable, grim-faced senior grad student.
All hope is not lost if you’re stuck. There are ways to turn a bad project into a better one. A master and legend, Mr. Bruce Lee, once said: “Do not pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”. Interchange “life” with “project” and we’re on the way to happier times.
My Own Bad Project
As I put the finishing touches on my thesis, I can’t help but to reflect on my time in graduate school.
I started with promising preliminary data and I was eager to get this “easy” project onto the fast track to success. Yet a mere month into the project the first difficulties started to appear: I couldn’t crystallize my protein. It seemed as if a new problem would pop up as soon as I solved an old one, but I remained optimistic that I would figure it out and publish quickly.
One year down the road and still no crystals; I fully realized I had a BAD project at hand. Like the girl in the video I wanted a job and wanted to be free, but I had no degree…so I vowed not to surrender to luck, faith or any other force majeure and to succeed whatever the costs. I researched new methods for protein structural determination and soon after I started using NMR for this purpose, I discovered that my protein would never crystallize due to its intrinsic biochemical properties. This research opened new avenues for me to explore various structural characteristics of my protein and soon I collected enough data to start crafting a scientific story.
Today I have one published paper, another ready for submission, and another in preparation as I write these words. These papers would have not been published if I hadn’t actively decided to turn my “BAD” project into a “PUBLISHABLE/GOOD” project. My work is not in any top journals, and I didn’t take the fast track to publication, but I am still successful. I survived the challenges and struggles to make the best out of this difficult project. These troubleshooting skills and ability to make lemonade from lemons will benefit me in my future job, regardless of if I’m in the lab.
Identifying a BAD project
While many will say it’s easy to spot a BAD project once you handle one, I would argue that first you must rule out the possibility that you’re the source for the failures observed.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I invested enough time to learn the current knowledge related to the project?
- If inherited from a previous student, do I have and understand his/her lab notebook?
- Have I invested enough time to learn and master the protocols and technical expertise required to fulfill the project’s goals?
- Am I deeply invested in this specific project? Have I explored all known troubleshooting avenues?
- If the BAD project was inherited from previous student, have I checked the integrity of the reagents/samples/protocols or started the project from scratch?
If you can honestly answer YES to all of the above, do any or all of the following apply to your project?
- Project is characterized by inconsistencies and inconclusive results
- Live samples (cells, bacteria, rodents etc) are fragile and are hard to reproduce
- Sample preparation is tedious and time consuming
- Frequent sample preparation is required since preps are characterized by very low yields and no possibility for medium or long term storage
- Project goals are practically impossible to attain with current and available technology (this is of course not known a-priori)
If these applied to your project and you answered yes to a question above, then yes, you have a BAD project.
The GOOD and PUBLISHABLE projects
Before we even think about fixing a BAD project, we must be aware of the two other kinds of projects – GOOD and PUBLISHABLE.
Most will agree that a “GOOD” project is one that runs smoothly, with almost no difficulties encountered and which can receive great scientific attention and thus can be published at high ranking journals. A “PUBLISHABLE” project is obviously one that you can publish and it may be a “GOOD” project or the transformation of a “BAD” project (like it was for me).
Sometimes a “BAD” project can be turned into a “GOOD” project once you’ve stumble upon key information/data/publication that either help you tackle a prominent blockage in the project or that you stumble upon an avenue that you and no other have envisioned, thus can lead to a quick transformation from “BAD” to “GOOD” (see my previous post about “going through the cloud”).
The path to transformation: convincing your PI
While not every BAD project can be transformed, I believe that the human factor plays a key role in the success of the transformation. The human factor includes not only you but also your supervisor or PI. The major hurdle (and in many cases the source) for the inability to move the project forward is the reluctance of the PI to take a different route or to aim at a lower ranking publication. Thus, if your PI stubbornly sticks to a certain course of action and is not open to other research avenues than your project faith rests mainly on your hard labor and luck.
However, if your PI is open-minded, then you can take control over the trajectory of your research and graduate studies. Be wary, though, that shifting your research focus without proper guidance can result in a blur of trial and error in many directions and without any significant progress. I have found that Labguru, a digital research management tool, is one companion that can aid you simply because it rests on proven project management concepts and always reminds you where want to be in X days/months/years.
The best way to transform your BAD project into a PUBLISHABLE/GOOD project is to review current literature for similar techniques or data (viability assays, pull downs, kinase assays, etc.). Look at what techniques the researchers used to support their claims. Identify the techniques that you have not yet applied and if possible, consider collaborating with neighboring labs to complement any needed equipment or expertise. Then map in Labguru’s note section what you have already attained in terms of scientific knowledge and see what additional data you need to craft your own scientific story. Yes, you might need to be creative to make the story shine more than it is (be subtle with this). But it is definitely possible to transform any BAD project to a PUBLISHABLE one. Don’t be afraid to obtain feedback and suggestions from your PI and your peers.
Once you have a clear idea of the techniques, a plan for the figures, and maybe even a title, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and make it happen:
- Start by setting up your goals and milestones – your goal is to collect the data for each figures in your scientific story. Because it make take awhile to reach that goal, break up tasks into associated milestones, so you won’t find yourself frustrated that things are not moving as fast as you planned.
- Outline your article story line through the notes function in Labguru and link the notes to the relevant project.
- As you research and develop your scientific story, download supporting articles through Labguru’s Pubmed Boomarklet and link them to the relevant project/goal. It will make your life so easy when you approach the writing stage.
- Setup tasks (order reagents) and experiments (Caspase assay on HeLa cells) with time schedules, working backwards from the date of the expected milestone to today. This will also enable you to adjust your milestone if you over exaggerated your milestone estimation.
Now get out there to your bench and make it happen!
Struggling with a BAD project? Tell us your story and how you dealt with it!