The Secret of (Almost) Original Thinking


Early in your career, research can feel like a relentless round of grant and fellowship applications, posters, talks, and reports, not to mention boundary-pushing experiments. I don't know about you but sometimes I feel like a production-line worker in a world-class assembly plant. One of the obvious pitfalls is becoming more and more focused on your own work, losing sight of the big picture and diminishing your chances of enriching your research by cross-fertilisation from other fields.

At my career stage I really need to be able to make those cross-links. Why? Because they could provide the ammunition I need to convince the powers-that-be that I'm onto the 'next big thing'--my passport to a fellowship or an academic post.

So how can we stop the rot, or at least prop-up the breadth of our knowledge until we secure that independent job? There are many, simple ways. As far as reading goes, time demands mean that postdocs can no longer fritter away half a day in the library scouring obscure journals as they used to as graduate students. Abstract scanning is the answer, even more so if you?re not in a position to access the full contents of all the weird journals themselves. A lot of this general fishing around can be made much easier with Web sites such as the Faculty of 1000, BioMed Central, or even the big genome-sequencing databases. I also find other scientists? home pages good primers for an unfamiliar area. The best ones contain an overview of their research and a lot of useful information and links, including to the author's papers. The really exciting thing about the age we live in is that everything seems to be at your fingertips. I recently accessed the Web page of a potential rival in the States, clicked on the e-mail button, and had a new collaborator almost before I knew it.

At your next big conference, don?t feel you have to follow the crowd. At least for part of the time, try letting your colleagues cover the mainstream sessions. Meanwhile scan the book of abstracts for anything that arouses your curiosity. Follow your nose and you?ll often stumble on something that?s potentially useful, or at least fascinating. A giant hall full of posters is another goldmine for budding new ideas hunters.

When you go hunting in this way you're looking for connections to your own research that nobody else in your field has spotted before. Maybe another field has already stumbled onto a new way of doing things that your colleagues haven?t even dreamed of. Oh sure, if it?s a winner they?ll certainly be playing catch up in a year or two. Your role is to access the idea first. You might have an unchallenged opportunity to take a new technology or a new idea, adapt it, and make yourself the expert in your own field. Thought-provoking, isn?t it: Areas seemingly unrelated to your science might have already thrown some light on your system without you even realising it.

Once you start digging around it won?t be long before you can mention keywords your boss has never heard of. Or better still, he or she has heard them at conferences but doesn't know exactly what they mean. You'll instantly be tagged as the lab expert, and you'll probably be hooked on the idea of fishing around for ideas. And the further removed from your own area the source of new information, the greater the potential kudos for you. The real aces at this game even step outside the boundaries of their own particular science and start working together, chemists with engineers, biologists with physicists.

Very few of us can say we are blessed with the ability to dream up truly original ideas. Most of us have to settle for ones that are really extensions or adaptations of what other people have already done. But the potential for attention grabbing is not diminished for that fact. So if you fancy yourself as a bit of a maverick, start worrying less about keeping up with the literature in your own field and try an exploration of foreign fields. It?ll mark you out as someone who?s into BIG science and it could pay rich dividends for your future career prospects. Because so few people rise to the challenge of keeping a finger on the big picture, a little bit of investigation outside your own field does go a very long way.

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