Choosing a research topic is a gamble. If too many projects don’t work it can be the end of your career, but picking things that are easy and boring can end your career too. I’m a contrarian. I like to choose problems that no one else works on. I have a formula: when I do a search for a potential research topic, I’ll pursue only those topics that generate fewer than 100 papers.
I try to manage competition intelligently so that it doesn’t destroy anyone’s career. My lab is open with its data. If we find out that others are on the same course, we either plan a co-submission with them, or, if they are really ahead, we’ll change course. I don’t like working in paranoid secrecy. I’ll call a direct competitor and ask about their work to try to develop these compromises. I don’t think enough people do this. I believe that competition is good, but if a project gets scooped it’s destructive. It can hamper careers and waste taxpayers’ dollars.
Leslie Vosshall, interview in Nature, 30 June 2010
I should try to keep this in mind when thinking about my postdoc project…