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When/how to pick research topic


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I'm going into an ecology and evolution PhD program in the US this fall. I don't have a specific project in mind yet. I just know that I'm interested in how human activity affects the makeup and distribution of microbial communities. All these other people keep telling me all about what they're going to work on once they start graduate school. I feel so lost and inferior. I keep thinking that I seriously messed up, but I thought I had at least a year before I needed to come up with my project. Was I wrong? How do I pick a topic? Do you have any specific reading suggestions for my interests?

Thank you.

Edited by CoolBunnyRabbit
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I understand the pain. I'm personally looking into Biochemistry, but initially it was very difficult to narrow that down. Structural? Computational? DNA or RNA? Proteins? NMR or crystallography? etc. For me, I was in a lab that worked with an NMR and proteins observing structural, computational, and dynamic data sets. From that lab, I read a variety of papers, everything ranging from DNA to RNA and proteins, and methods using everything from NMR, to CD, to Cryo-Ers. Nothing really quite caught my interest like the NMR and proteins, I didn't want completely computational, but I wanted aspects of it. I decided to go with integrative structural bio and pure structural bio. Those were the papers I really got into and I really liked. Rotations might help you as well, but that is a small time-frame and sometimes too specific, I'd reccomend just sticking to papers. Start out a bit broad, and narrow it in based off concepts that really catch your attention. I don't know much about ecology and evolution (I came from Chemistry to Biochem, so I have absolutely no bio background), but I'd assume it works in a very similar fashion to my search for Biochemistry.

For me, it really came down to what my purpose and reasoning was for being in Biochem in the first place. I really want to go into pharma and help find cures for various ailments, and I feel as if proteins are the key to that, proteins using NMR and various biophysical instruments. However, for any drug to be designed, one needs to understand the structure and function of the protein, and I feel as if that can best be achieved by looking at its structure and going from there. So that helped me to really narrow my search. Hope this helped!

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Thank you both. This helps a lot.

Yes, I am required to do 3 rotations with the option of adding a 4th.

I especially like what you said, samman1994, about why you even got into biochem in the first place. I'll try to keep that in mind while I read.

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Glad I could help. I think that's really important to keep in mind in general when you start wondering, why a PhD, when you could stop at a MA? What kind of job do you want as a career? Why the major you chose? It really helps to answer all of those questions, and provides direction and motivation. 

I.e. I chose a PhD because I want to make medicine and cures, and want to have a direct and active role in the process in the industry, I don't think I can do that with a MA. Again, because of my belief in proteins and their role in diseases and cures, the best option for me was Biochemistry instead of say molecular or cell. 

I think a lot of people lose sight of the bigger picture and why they're doing what they're doing, especially when you're in the PhD program. It's going to be very stressful at times, and you're not going to enjoy it all the time, and it'll lead you to ask the questions above. It's important to have a strong end goal, one more than "I just want to get my PhD because degree or pay". I think having direction and true passion for that direction is really what separates a good Grad student, and an amazing one, not intellect or skill. Good luck searching! 

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