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While pursuing a PhD in an experimental field, one usually researches a given topic and conducts experiments that are rather closely related to this topic and one another. I imagine this specialization can be beneficial as one attains expertise in the research field and can work in a timely and focused manner.

However, I can also imagine that this specialization may make changing your area of research more difficult when applying for positions as a post-doc. Therefore, I am wondering about the advantages and disadvantages of researching scientific questions one is interested in, but that are irrelevant to ones PhD thesis on the side.

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In more theoretical areas, the answer is "Obviously!" But since you're asking specifically about experimental fields, I hesitate to write that as an answer. –  JeffE Sep 24 '12 at 21:28
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3 Answers

The main downside is that it takes a significant amount of effort to gain enough specialization in a given topic to be proficient enough to perform useful experimentation. Given that a a graduate student you're spending almost all your time familiarizing yourself with the topic you're actually performing research on, it would be very difficult to become an expert in an area unrelated to your work.

That being said, many research topics are very conducive to multi-disciplinary research. To use myself as an example, I usually tell people that I'm a cross between a neuroscientist, behavioral psychologist, signal processing engineer, and statistician. A colleague of mine started his research examining how to use the lungs as a power source for an implantable device, and ended up publishing a significant paper in the field of organic chemistry, fairly unrelated to his intended research. Becoming an expert in your own field enables you to research some pretty interesting and diverse topics.

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The main downside is the opportunity cost of time spent being "unfocused".

Accordingly, I think the relative merit of pursuing ancillary research topics hinges on how much time you want to spend on your PhD. The road to tenure is long and so there are strong arguments for starting on it early. A PhD is just the beginning. However, later on, I do not think one can drop a side-project with as few consequences as during graduate school.

You should also distinguish between the same research that goes by different labels. Different fields call the same thing different names, which can make it seem as if someone has more varied interests than they do.

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However, later on, I do not think one can drop a side-project with as few consequences as during graduate school. — Really? Why not? (I'm assuming that once a project attracts enough money to employs RAs, it's no longer a "side project".) How could faculty explore new research areas without doing exploratory side projects? –  JeffE Sep 24 '12 at 21:26
    
I see your point that my use of 'side-project' has a shifting definition. Perhaps its better to say that there is a bigger loss if you sink money, RAs, etc into a project that doesn't pan out as opposed to if you as a grad student wasted a lot of hours on something. Then, my comment just the time of someone with more experience can be worth more. –  mac389 Sep 24 '12 at 22:01
    
@JeffE - Because later on, instead of just having time to play around doing research, you're writing grants, teaching courses, performing departmental administrative duties, and mentoring grad student & postdocs. Compare this to being a grad student, when your responsibilities include (1) showing up and (2) doing research. –  eykanal Sep 25 '12 at 2:47
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@eykanal — Right. But playing around with half-baked crazy ideas that may not pan out is a prerequisite for writing good grant proposals, which is how we get grants, without which we have neither students nor postdocs. Side projects aren't a distraction for research faculty; they're a requirement. Departmental administrative duties, on the other hand... –  JeffE Sep 25 '12 at 5:21
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I can see pros and cons to this. The pros are obvious and are just like you state: you will be gaining specific expertise, you'll be doing truly independent research , you'll be pioneering.

I would point out one major con though: if you do work that none of your professors are "in charge" of there is a good chance they will act like little babies and discredit, ignore, or openly assault your work! It happened to me.

I had my master's thesis in Scientific Visualization, which was an already funded idea hosted by my advisor. Unfortunately it wasn't a very popular idea so a) it wasn't that interesting, and b) I couldn't get much attention from my advisor. But then my friend, who was doing research in Computational Biology came up with a really great idea for a collaborative visualization project and I started working on that in parallel. It turned out to be really cool, I got a poster accepted to a major conference, and my friend actually benefitted from the output.

My advisor, however, was just pissed off. He didn't give a shit that I was doing my own creative work. He just saw that I wasn't playing his game. I actually got in trouble for this. I tried to appeal to my team of 3 professors who were my secondary advisors but they reamed me too. One of them said "well none of us know if your work is actually quality. Anyone can get a poster published." Mind you out of the entire group of 12 students who submitted work to the conference only 3 posters were chosen and two of them were mine.

So the short of it is: academics are like little boys tied to their mother's apron strings. Don't expect them to support you in being truly creative. If you follow this path then make sure you either convince a professor that it was his

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Don't walk. Run. (We profs aren't all spoiled brats. Honest!) –  JeffE Sep 24 '12 at 21:13
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Seems like a required primary goal was replaced by an optional, personal secondary goal, for whatever reason. But the question is about keeping primary as primary itself, a disciplined approach. +1 to @JeffE –  Noble P. Abraham Sep 25 '12 at 1:01
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