The death of an idea

I find it hard to let go.

As scientists, our currency is ideas. We’re judged on the quality of our science through the papers we produce and the ideas we share. No matter your thoughts on the current state of academic publishing, this is the way it is for now.

I recently got back from a 9-month research trip to Okinawa, Japan. The adjustment back to Irish life hasn’t been easy. There are lots of things I miss about Okinawa: the food; the people; the weather. But a new academic year brings the next phase of my PhD. It’s time to deliver on what I promised back as a fresh-faced newbie to the department.

One of the unifying themes that drives science the world over is curiosity. For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in the natural world. As I got older, I began to see the problems human action has caused (and continues to do so!). This is primarily what drove me to ecology, but it’s not what kept me in academia. I’ve stayed (so far at least) because of my broader interests.

Most academics at any career stage will tell you that one of the best parts is sharing ideas, building new partnerships and working on new projects. This often comes at the expense of ongoing work; a common theme I’ve noticed on twitter is scientists remarking that they take on new projects before they’ve finished the dozens of unfinished papers they’re working on. I’m much the same, albeit at a smaller scale because of my early career stage.

View from Victoria Peak, Hong Kong (Above) and a street in Osaka (Top). Two trips I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

This week I’ve done something for possibly the first time in my academic career. I’ve killed an idea. It sounds dramatic, but I’ve come to the realisation that I can’t keep taking on additional side projects and following tangents in my PhD trajectory without the main focus suffering. So, I did what I’ve not done before. I let a good idea (at least in my opinion and the opinion of a few of my colleagues) go. It was hard to pull the plug, but I know my PhD will be better off for it.

I was reassured that this gets easier with time. That at later career stages you have so many ideas that some just aren’t worth your effort. That in some cases, you can hand ideas off to undergraduates or PhD students to mould for themselves; and that this can sometimes be just as hard as killing a project outright.

I’m not letting go of my time in Okinawa. I’ll be back. But I am letting go of an idea. An idea that could have been a nice paper and done good things for my CV and career. But getting my PhD is better for my career.

It’s sad to think that this idea may never be shared with the world. But now I’m focused. I’m hungry. I’ve set my next goal and I’m not letting go of that.

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