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Working on side project in a different lab during PhD?


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Hi all, I'm looking for some straight-forward advice on something that I've gotten conflicting feedback about. In a nutshell, I'm considering pursuing an arrangement where I work on a side project with one PI during the course of my thesis research in another PI's lab.



I had a couple years of research experience before grad school, and much of that time was spent pursuing one project that I've been lucky enough to handle almost entirely myself. I did everything for all the experiments, collected and analyzed all the data myself, and got to have the final say on next steps. Basically, I really trust everything that has come out of it so far and this project is my baby. It's not a high-impact project by any means, but we did find a dramatic phenomenon that catches people's eye. 

However, the reality of my situation now is that a different PI is probably best for me as a PhD student. This new PI's project idea for me is something I'm pretty excited about, and in talking to him and his other PhD student I've found that I really like his lab management philosophy. He also has connections in a variety of future opportunities I'm interested in pursuing. 


My DGS says it's reasonable to have a side project, and in fact he is planning on publishing a paper with someone else's current student that he worked with in the past. On the other hand, it feels a bit brazen to ask the new PI that I be allowed to spend something like 20% of my time working in someone else's lab. I also wonder if I would simply be happier and more productive without having to split my time like that, and losing control of this project (by handing it off entirely to someone else) would be worth the trade-off. Of course an ugly possibility is that it gets back-burnered indefinitely and I never get a publication from it, but hopefully that wouldn't happen...


For what it's worth, I'm currently funded by a 3-year fellowship, so the new PI wouldn't actually be paying for me to work for someone else.


Thoughts? Similar experiences? Thanks!

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Seems to me it's a two step process. First, do you want to work on this side project? Personally, I have to have "side" projects, although it's funny to call them that because I don't have just one "main" project. I did for my dissertation, but not before then and not since. I realize it might be different in a lab science so I don't know if this helps you, but I've always thought that this tendency to work on just one project or have multiple of them is tied more to personality than circumstances. For me, it's important to have several things going at the same time; it helps me not to feel stuck and it sort of distributes the risk of anything failing so it's not like I have everything invested in this one project and if something goes wrong with it then I am completely stuck. Besides, I have lots of things I would like to think about and I enjoy having collaborations with other colleagues, all of which require working on multiple projects. On the other hand, I have friends who only work on (possibly many aspects of) one topic. I think it helps them specialize and concentrate their time and efforts, as opposed to juggling many balls in the air. This works for them, and seems like a fine and frequent enough choice that people make, so my conclusion from this is that you can be successful both ways, you just need to learn what your preferences are.


Now, suppose you want to work on a side project. Then, the question is whether your main advisor will be ok with it. This is something you have to bring up with him. If he is not ok with it, it seems to me that it would harm your relationship to pursue the side project, so you'd have to drop it. If your advisor agrees, then you need to have an understanding about your responsibilities, priorities, and how you'll split your time between the two projects. I'd suggest having some thoughts about that when you approach your advisor. This is definitely not unheard of, so I'm sure you could find others on the board and in your lab who have a similar kind of arrangement.

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You have good points, fuzzy. While the side project may add stress when I already have my hands full with moving forward on my main topic, it can probably help dilute frustration if my main research is stalling. And it is true that in lab research, while we may say we're working on one project, that may actually mean a handful of different studies and lines of inquiry. 


I guess the reason I haven't mentioned what I actually want is because I don't know. I have an obvious attachment to this project and would love to publish a complete picture of it, but it has also been very frustrating managing that PI's more aggravating traits (one of which is making baffling and very stubborn arguments to try and avoid dealing with problems that he would rather ignore). I wouldn't mind never having to butt heads with him again, or having to deal with knowing that animals were sacrificed pointlessly because I yielded on some stupid argument earlier on. Not to mention that his tendency to want to argue for sport may mean that I commit to doing the project but end up having to do it his way and not mine. I have to consider the possibility that the only reason he ever allowed me to get my way is because he hoped to persuade me to join his lab. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

I have worked in private and public sector labs;  you are correct in that no one works solely on one project at a time. There is always something on the side.  There are moments when you simply have to let things run their course, and what are you going to do in the meantime?  Twiddle your thumbs?  I would assume as a Ph.D. student that downtime would be spent researching literature or working on the dissertation.       


I would think the real question to ask is if taking on the second project would interfere with your dissertation or not.  Fuzzylogician has Linguistics listed as major; I would imagine tons of writing experience and ability to do so.  Science majors, in particular those who study biology, on the other hand, are rather weak in the area of written communications. At least for most it seems.  I have yet to experience graduate school so this is only my thought.

Edited by Crucial BBQ
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Personally, I would see if you could spin it to your PI as a collaboration. 


Most PIs would not be interested in having "their" graduate student working to publish with someone else, but if it's a good collaboration with the potential for more publications and grants in the future that you're building, why not?


A number of my current "side projects" started this way, and many of them have spun off into full fledged projects for new group members in one group or the other that I still help direct. 

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  • 1 month later...

I have this same problem. It is good to know that many other students also do side projects. I got an RA position from another prof (not my supervisor) after I studied a course with him. His funding deadline is approaching so he just paid me one time for 2 year salary. Now I feel I owned him something :(

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