Friday, 02 May 2014 00:00

What to Do When You Lose Interest in Your Project

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No-frustrationNo frustration.
Photo credit: Sfoerster
It's a sad but inevitable truth: enthusiasm ebbs and flows, never consistent or unwavering. This holds true for many things in life, but to scientists this is most pertinent to our enthusiasm toward our projects. Whether you're a grad student or postdoc (and maybe even a PI), you have definitely gone through a period when you're simply tired of your project, don't want to read another word or article about the same-old topic, lack the motivation to do any experiments, and in short find anything related to your work off-putting and depressing. One good point to keep in mind: You're not alone having this feeling.

Now, how do you go about dealing with it? Here are a few suggestions from personal and other people's experiences:

- Stop working. Take a step back from the bench, take some time to "smell the roses," and just let your mind rest. A good break and some time to relax is the best way to recharge your batteries. I try to make it a habit to take a long weekend once a month, or at least leave early on a Friday every once in a while, to just going out, catch up on sleep, and spend quality time (no papers or data) with my dog and my fiancée. This allows me to always be ready on Monday to take on the challenges of the week.

- Work on something else. Sometimes losing interest is simply a side-effect of being so engrossed in your project that you lose sight of the bigger picture! Try working on a side project, related or unrelated to your current project; it will probably rekindle that spark. Consider it a "mental vacation" from your main project while you relieve and entertain your mind with another scientific question.

- Talk about your project with others. Sometimes it's as simple as getting a new point of view. Working too much and too hard on a single project or idea by yourself results in tunnel vision that may lead to bias as well as boredom on your project. Find someone, a lab-mate, friend, advisor/faculty member you enjoy talking to, or even a relative (not my personal preference, but hey, personal preferences), and discuss your work, your project, what your hypothesis is (or was), and what direction you're going in. Just talking about it, whether specifically about experiments and lab issues with experts, or general discussion about the topic with nonscientists, may bring back to your mind the reasons you started working on your project in the first place. Whoever you talk to might not solve your problems, but they can be the perfect sounding board to enable you to talk come up with the answer yourself! In some situations, particularly if you talk to someone with a scientific/research background, they might provide you with an answer or solution to a problem that gets you over your stumbling block. I personally love talking to people from other fields to get a fresh perspective.

- Make a figure list. Sometimes people lose interest in their projects because they see no end in sight. The best way to deal with this is to think of the manuscript you will write about your project and hypothesis. Write a preliminary title with the punch line. Then work on a figure list, containing a title for each figure and what ideas or data the subparts whould convey, including all controls and experimental conditions. Think of any questions reviewers might ask, then put those into a supplementary figure list. By the end, this will clarify where you are in your project, will put the end in sight, and will help you focus your work! This could serve to motivate you to finish and wrap up those few niggling figure sections you still need to work on, or tell you to think smaller and reorganize your thoughts into different sections or smaller questions that could lead to faster conclusions.

- Talk to your PI/mentor about it. Sometimes, the clearest answers come from the source. Talking to your PI/mentor about your frustrations and your project may help by making your boss aware of the difficulties you are facing (making you less susceptible to the "no progress" complaint you could face otherwise) and allows them to think of ways around any problems in experimental or intellectual design that could be hampering the progress of your project. Then again, this totally depends on your PI, so consider your relationship with your PI and his or her personality before you choose this option.

- Maybe it IS time to change that project. Definitely not the favorite approach, and one that requires considerable thought (and probably discussions with your boss), but sometimes you just cut your losses and move on. If a project is stuck, not moving anywhere, or is no longer motivating you at all it might be worth considering moving on. Take caution though: Don't take this step without a backup project, idea, or even (if possible) some preliminary data to launch you on your next project. Just keep in mind that this happens to many people, and before you take that step look back and see if you can salvage anything out of your work. Maybe wrap up a short paper or a brief report: In this age of "publish or perish" it would be a boost!

There are probably many different approaches in addition to those listed above. Consider your steps but then try your hardest to regain your enthusiasm and love for whatever you were working on, or decide to move on. After all, our love for science and what we work on is the biggest driving force behind our career... it certainly isn't the money! I hope you found these tips helpful and good luck on your future projects.

Hashem Dbouk

Hashem is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Melanie Cobb's lab at UT Southwestern, in Dallas, Texas. His long-term research interests focus on identifying protein-protein interactions and the mechanisms by which they regulate functions of kinases, with research spanning WNKs and PI3-Kinases.

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