Should you do a “side project”?


What’s a “side project”? A side project is the academic project you do alongside your main academic research. If you’re doing a full time PhD, the side project is another smaller bit of research. If you’re working as a postdoc on someone else’s project and this is is your main work then, alas, trying to do something from your PhD might be your side project. But here I want to talk only about doctoral research.

Now, there are mixed views about side projects for PhDers. Some supervisors are petty adamant that the PhD and just the PhD is all that you should do. Nothing else. Zip, zilch, nada distractions. Other supervisors, and I’m one of them, think that having another little project going alongside the big PhD can be quite a good thing, provided the little one doesn’t take over. Why is that?

Tthe first thing to say is the extra project can’t be any old project. The side project has to have a helpful relationship with the main project. These side projects are what Joli Jensen calls called “buddy log projects”. Jensen’s metaphor is of a burning log fire, in which the main log is kept going by a smaller one next to it. Sparks and flames move between the main log and its neighbouring buddy. So the side helps the main.

A buddy log side project can help you to see things from a new angle, prompt you to explore related ideas, literatures and/or methods. And you might even learn something from the new project that you couldn’t have predicted would have such a profound impact on your main project.

Following Jensen, the question becomes not whether to have a side project at all, but whether the side project is one that has a potentially productive relationship with the main project.

Well, I hear you say, that’s all very well in theory, but does this sparking off between projects actually happen? It clearly does for Joli Jensen. And it does for me too. I generally have at least two projects going on at the same time, but very often find that what I am reading and thinking for one is actually also relevant for the other. So n=2 in favour.

And actually the situation of most full time academics is that we always have more than one thing on the go. So we can and do make it work. But there are plenty of PhDers who make the main and side projects work productively together too. See this post by Louisa Penfold and Roma Patel about a side project they did together.

But if you are a PhDer considering a side project then there are questions you might ask yourself to help decide whether what you’re considering is a good idea or not. Here’s five questions to start with.

  • Does the side project deal with the same kind of issue as your main project but from a different angle?
  • Does it share some literatures?
  • Does it use the same methods?
  • Does it help you to acquire a new skill?
  • Does it allow you to learn more about a method, about writing in a particular genre? And so on.

However, synchronicity is not the only issue to consider in the main-side project decision. The other important matter is that the side project must remain just that, a side project, and not take over from the main. This is not about the side project going off at a tangent, but its about the side demanding so much of you that your main project no longer has the time it needs.

Of course, if you are doing  a part time doctorate, then whether there is enough time at all is THE key issue. It is likely hard enough just getting the time to do your main project and a side project may well just be altogether too much.

Finally, for some people at least, having a side project makes their main project less all-consuming. It is not the only thing in your life. You can go away from it for a little bit and come back with fresh eyes, having shut it out of your mind for a while. The side projects acts as a refresher.

So why not at least approach the side project with an open mind?

And a helpful hint from Jensen. If you use the ABC time system then you might think about the side project being B time, and not A time. Save A time for your main project.