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One red apple surrounded by multiple green apples on a green background.

Deciding which projects to pursue can be daunting, but a simple framework can help you to decide which ones are the best fit.Credit: Biwa Studio/Getty

All three of us have, at some point in our academic careers, taken on one too many projects. For example, M. P. is finishing his PhD programme in management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In his first three years there, he got involved in 12 projects. Eventually, he realized that he needed to narrow his focus to just a few, to get them over the finish line. In his fourth year, he dropped all but three — and the results of those projects have since been published in leading academic journals.

When E. T., who earned a PhD at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and J. M. C., whose PhD is from the University of California, Santa Barbara, first entered graduate school, they followed their broad interests. They were pulled in too many directions before carefully choosing where to expend their efforts.

Over our careers, we have learnt that time, energy and resources are precious. The path to success involves strategically focusing on select projects — not scattering attention across multiple fronts. Graduate students must be ruthless when working out which projects to prioritize.

People, passion, publishable

We’ve created a framework that we call the ‘3 Ps’ — people, passion and publishable — to determine which research lines to pursue and which to cast aside. Prioritize projects that involve people you like, as well as those that you are passionate about and that have strong potential to provide good, publishable results.

Portrait of McKenzie Preston.

PhD student McKenzie Preston.Credit: McKenzie Preston

People. Work is more enjoyable, and feels easier, when it is done with friends or trusted colleagues whom you feel comfortable around. And having co-workers you like can make work more efficient, because you can communicate without overthinking about how you come across. The quality of your group’s work also benefits: in established relationships, people are open and receptive to feedback and ideas and can speak freely about potential issues before they become bigger problems.

Power dynamics can make it difficult for early-career scientists to freely choose whom they work with, and finding ways to manage conflict and avoid bad managers can be very difficult. But when you are able to choose your projects, good interpersonal relationships should be very high on your list of things to look for.

Passion. Work on projects you care about. To publish a paper, you will have to stay interested in the concept for a long time. And at some point, you will have to work really hard. If you do not like or care about the topic, it can be hard to pull that off. E. T. started a project with two colleagues whom she respected, despite the research topic being outside her primary area of expertise. When both collaborators relocated, she was left in charge — and the project felt draining to work on. It fizzled out over time.

Passion comes from a few sources. You might have heard that other people’s passion can rub off on you, and you won’t realize how much you care until you get involved in a project. That can be true. But it is worth assessing your interest in a project periodically. You can also think about the project in terms of your professional goals and whether it will help you to meet them.

Publishable. Focus on the projects that are likely to produce the best results. What form those will take is, of course, dependent on your field. But for most scientists, getting the best results is required to publish papers in good journals.

Portrait of Jacqueline Chen.

Jacqueline M. Chen is an associate professor in psychology.Credit: University of Connecticut

For quantitative research, this could mean prioritizing projects that will yield robust, reproducible effects. If you are considering writing a registered report, which reviewers will decide whether to accept on the basis of the idea and methods alone, assess whether you can obtain results that pass quality checks. For qualitative research, this could mean prioritizing projects that uncover fresh perspectives, themes or phenomena. Remember, to publish, your goal is to obtain results that could inform theory, practice or policy. Data that are mixed, convoluted or not robust could be a major barrier to publication.

Should I work on this project? A checklist

Where should you expend your energy? This checklist can help scientists choosing between projects in their graduate studies. The first two items relate to people, the second two to passion and the last two to whether the data are publishable. List each project you are working on, and for each of the following statements, rate the project on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

1. This project is with people I trust to be good scientists or scholars.

2. I look forward to meetings with collaborators about this project.

3. The topic of this project is interesting to me.

4. This project fits with my desired professional identity.

5. Data collection for this project is going well or is likely to go well.

6. The results seem to be robust or are likely to be robust.

Immediately disregard any projects that score a 1 in any category. Then charge ahead with the project with the highest score.

Competing Interests

This work was supported by US National Science Foundation grant number DGE-1943041 to J. M. C..

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