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Combating Shiny Object Syndrome

How to keep interesting tangents from derailing your dissertation progress.

February 12, 2015

Katherine Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.

In graduate school it is extremely important to know when you are putting your time towards professional activities that are directly beneficial to your dissertation progress versus activities that are interesting or fun but do not contribute to moving you forward. In terms of time and resources spent on experiments, staying on task is a serious consideration or else you run the risk of falling victim to Shiny Object Syndrome.

It’s great to be curious about many different topics; curiosity is a driving force in basic research and is a necessary motivator for many individuals. However, in order to stay on task and keep making progress towards your degree it can be helpful to follow these guidelines:

Learn to Designate “For Dissertation” and “Interesting Tangents” During Literature Review: I am guilty of this. My dissertation mascot has been Dori from “Finding Nemo.” I can happily fly down a rabbit hole of research on PubMed for an entire day, ending with a giant stack of new articles that are tangentially related to my dissertation work. Being able to conduct a thorough literature review is all well and good, but a lot of the time these papers don’t directly help me understand my topic. Now, in doing a PhD you have to work at the very limit of human knowledge, so sometimes you end up pulling in diverse resources in order to get a broad understanding of the topic at hand; that is not a bad thing. However, when you repeatedly find yourself consumed by interesting but non-supportive materials you may have a problem with Shiny Object Syndrome, where interesting but non-productive tasks begin to take over. Take a moment during your literature reviews to make sure that what you are following is directly relevant to your work. If you do find interesting research articles that you want to read…

Designate Blocks of Time for Side Projects: To keep tangential research from seeping into your productive hours it helps to set aside designated times to work on side projects. Treat them like you would a hobby; give them a designated time but do not let them interfere with your real work. Save the interesting citation or pdf, and keep it to read until you have free time so as not to use up time meant for research. For me this usually means reading an interesting journal article on the bus when I have 20 uninterrupted minutes to read whatever I want.

Minimize Risk in New Projects: If you believe that pursuing a side interest may actually aid you in your dissertation progress, then write down what resources it will require and how much time it will take. Is it a relatively minor investment in time and resources? Then go for it! Graduate school should be an opportunity to learn to think for yourself. A major part of this is learning which experiments are worth pursuing. However, if this side project involves a significant amount of time, animal work, or using up some serious resources in the lab, then think twice. Do not take major steps like this without consulting your adviser first; they or someone else may have attempted that particular experiment before you joined the lab and it did not work. Talk with your adviser to determine the following:

  • Is it worth the time away from your primary research?
  • Is the potential payoff from this particular side experiment worth the effort and potential setbacks in the progress of your primary research that could result from taking the time to accomplish the project?
  • How likely is the side project to succeed early on? (Is the system well characterized? Is it an established technique, or something very new and exciting, but not as well known?)
  • What kind of optimization might the project methods require to get up and running? (Don’t discount the time necessary for optimizing experiments in a new system!)
  • Do you have the resources (equipment, cash, animals, etc.) necessary to complete the proposed studies?
  • Do you have all of the necessary administrative approvals for the work (clearance for animal work, strain approval, radioisotope permits for radiolabeling studies, etc.)?

If it is worth the time and your lab has the resources and approvals, you can go for these riskier projects with the support of your adviser. This is often the process by which your dissertation project will slowly change hands from your adviser to you. Over time you should become the person proposing the new studies stemming from your work, and all of that diverse study early on will help to inform how you develop your own dissertation research project.

These are only of a few of the ways that you can manage interesting distractions and even use them to support your primary work and make it your own (interdisciplinary projects, anyone?) How have you managed the lure of tangential studies during your dissertation? Share your experiences with Shiny Object Syndrome in the comments section below.

[Image by Flickr user Abby Lanes and used under Creative Commons licensing]


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