What do I call a “side project”? As I taught my students in Bremen – always define the used terms in the beginning of your paper to be sure that you and your readers think about the same things. The “side project” for me is everything what we do and what is not directly connected with our PhD project, for example:

  • Your supervisor asked you to wrote some paper for his/ her conference
  • A colleague from your department is a book editor and asked you to write a book chapter
  • Your professor asked you to be a book chapter co-author
  • Your colleague from studies asked you to work on some parts of his/her research project
  • Someone invited you to joint research and a paper writing afterwards
  • You applied for a scholarship abroad with other research project than your final PhD project
  • You found some interesting volunteering opportunities
  • Your Professor asked you to assist her/his courses
  • You received financial grant for a summer school (10 days somewhere)

Topics of papers/ research / activities can be related with your PhD research but not necessarily.

Take a part or not take a part in the “side project”?

It is hard question to answer.

When I was starting my PhD, my Friend said me – “They will ask you to take a part in some extra activities but remember that it is always up to you if you decide. Of course if it is your supervisor it is sometimes hard to say no. You can always learn something new doing this things, and you make contacts etc. So it is good to agree for some of them, but not for all of them. You also need to have time to work on your thesis.”

Sometimes I followed his advice, sometimes not really 😛

In the beginning my PhD project was not so clear. In Poland at some universities you don’t need to present your research project proposal when you apply for a PhD studies. At my University we had to choose our supervisor on the second semester, and my first research topic was somehow fitted to the Professor who I wanted to choose. Then I changed my mind and research idea three times, but still my topic is somehow in the same wider area. So when my research topic wasn’t clear it was hard to say if my “side projects” were connected with it or not.

What can I say from a time perspective? –  The “side projects” are time consuming. If you decide in favor of taking part in them, be aware that you need to uwzględnić it in your schedule, and you will have less time for other things. 

The “side projects” can be also very enriching. Taking part in my “side projects” taught me a lot of things, for example:

  • Helping my colleague in his project I did my very first individual in-depth interview (IDI) and I gained some experience in that, which I could use later on in my own research 
  • Writing a paper for my supervisor’s conference (it was my first paper in English and the first paper writing under his supervision) I received useful feedback from my supervisor and he taught me a lot about a papers writing based on this article (and he was not anymore so much interested in my next papers :P)
  • Working on my research project abroad I learned that this method which I wanted to use also in my PhD is not the best one, so now I will not use it in my PhD research 😉 (and I learned much more things being abroad but it is a topic for a separate post)  
  • Assisting my Professor in her courses was extremely useful experience – I was responsible for some part of a work, and I was independent in my way to do this, and during that two semesters I was learning how to interact with students, and how to define my role in this relation 
  • Doing joint research with more experienced researcher, when we did a survey (for me for the first time) and IDI, I learned how to work with received data afterwards, and I can use this knowledge working with data in my PhD project 

Not all “side projects” can be like that. I think that it is hard to predict ahead, if we gain something taking part in the “side project” or not. If we have a clear idea of what we want to do in our PhD, maybe it is easier to judge. But even if the topic of the “side project” is barely connected with your research interests we can gain some important experience taking part in it, or we can meet interesting people there, or we can gain wider your perspective… It is good to do it, but “within reason”. Remember that your PhD project is the most important, especially when your time to do it is limited. Taking part in too many “side projects” can cause that there is no time left for your PhD project – as sometimes is my case.

Few weeks ago I met with my Friend and we were talking about our “side projects”. He asked me very important question: “Are your ‘side project’ anyhow connected with your PhD research?” The answer was – “No, not really.” This talk was an inspiration for this post. On my second year I had an attitude – “I want to try everything“, so I agreed for most of the “side projects” propositions. In the end I did a lot of different things, but there was no progress in my PhD project at all. On the third year I noticed that exist magic word “No”, and I concentrated on my research project abroad, and on “side projects”, where I couldn’t say “No”. Now I am finishing the last one “side project” (spontaneously started in June), and one idea of a joint research is “suspended”. I’ve decided to focus only on my PhD research. What did I gain from taking a part in “side projects”? For sure I increased my knowledge, and gained some practical skills. On the other hand comparing effort, time, energy, and money invested in the “side projects” with obtained outcomes, I can say that maybe it would be better to invest all this assets into my PhD project, or at least decide in favour of the “side projects” thematically related with my PhD research.  

Edit 21.12.2016

There is another good reason to join some “side projects” – we can gain measurable experience, which can be important for example for grant applications. When I read reviews of my last grant application, all reviewers underlined that taking part in previous projects makes me more trustable to lead my own project, because I’ve already had some experience.