Your Research Garden
Further along your research career, you will move from working exclusively on research project to managing several research projects at various stages of development.
One metaphor that is useful for managing these projects is thinking about your research as a garden. Not everyone idea will flourish, but tend a good research garden and you will have a fruitful research career.
Stages of a Garden
Let’s start with a simple pipeline view of a garden: Seeds, Planting, Growing, and Harvest. We start with seeds, and hopefully harvest a result at the end.
Seeds. You might have thousands of ideas — like seeds, they are cheap and easy to hold on to. But, you only have limited room in your garden for growing. Furthermore, seeds might only be viable for a few years before they expire.
Planting. Until you do something about an idea, it is still a seed. Each project must have its own space. Not only calendar slots for meetings, but mental energy, tasks you must execute, deadlines that will exist, interactions with people. When first starting a garden, you might only be able to allocate space to 3–5 ideas.
Growing. When growing a project, you must make sure you are giving continual attention to it. Resources and attention must be constantly provided, or you may leave your own motivation and other collaborators starving. Ideally, you should be able to make small but steady progress each few days or each week.
Harvest. Your ultimately goal is the fruit of the project and not the project itself. There are many parts of a project (and plant) that get created: meeting notes, transcripts, code, data analysis, etc. But only the fruit — that is, the research output (research paper, tool, etc.) is the one that matters.
Harvesting your project only ends with publication of your results.
Rot. A project near completion, but never finished and published risks rot. After time, data and analysis scripts gets loss (i.e., bitrot). Knowledge and enthusiasm fades. Collaborators may change jobs or lose availability. You have a limited timeframe to finish your effort. Better to harvest early than to allow a project go to rot.
Overwatering. Too much attention can be just as bad. You do not want to continuously grind on a research problem. Sometimes, you need to take a break in order to conceptualize your approach and problem as well as reflect on your goals and priorities.
Uprooting. Some projects grow fast, with promising results show themselves early. Others do not. Early in your career, you cannot afford to tend a garden of dead ideas. Uproot projects that are not showing incremental signs of success or do not have a clear path of action.
Replanting Seeds. Take the Little Bets mindset. Focus on the act of completing a project, not dreaming of a grand output. The seeds you bear from successful projects can be replanted.
Whole Plant. Living papers and reproduction packages are great ideas. Long-term, we do want to be able to save the whole plant and not just the fruit; however, this takes much more skill to get setup.