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Background: I started my Ph.D two and half years ago in engineering/computer science field. I was pushed by my supervisor into a direction which he thought would be good (He switched directions and he knows nothing about the field, just because there were better prospects for getting grants). I never felt connected to the field and he never received any grants to study it.

I switched a year ago to a subject that I feel passionate about and started reading lots of literature. I have done some work and submitted (rejected at first, resubmitted and waiting).

So now I have completed 2.5 years in the program and no publications at all. I even find it very hard to find new novel ideas in my field as it is been actively researched for 10 years and it seems to me as if almost everything is already done but that is a different issue. I am afraid I won't get enough publications in time before the Ph.D time limit expires.

Question: Is it normal to be 2.5 years into Ph.D and have no publications?

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What did your supervisor say? Does your department have an explicit minimum number of publications that must have been accepted before a PhD can be awarded? What have your peers and predecessors done by this stage? –  EnergyNumbers Jul 25 '14 at 7:37
Are you in the US, or in any other PhD program with a lot of coursework involved in the first years? –  laika Jul 25 '14 at 9:51
My supervisor never mentioned anything. He had some students graduate with one conference paper yet for the past few years he is asking for unreasonable number of publications. He has some students publish over 15 conferences and 5 journals in five years time! No coursework is required in my program which makes me even feel bad. –  The Byzantine Jul 25 '14 at 15:44

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

One word.

Yes !

It is absolutely normal. I am a doctoral student in, what is arguably a top 5 CS department/top 5 HCI program in the USA.

Although, I had a handful of publications before I started my doctoral program, my first "real" paper (in a top flight venue) with my adviser was published more than 2.5 years after I joined the program. I had published a couple of workshop papers/posters in those years with other graduate students but the acceptance rates for them, even in highly ranked conferences, are pretty high so that doesn't really account for much. These had nothing to do with my dissertation but were just some side projects that we did.

Most of my colleagues and friends/acquaintances in similar programs in similar universities were in similar situations in that time. It takes time to read literature, come up with a compelling and important research question, design a study/prototype/system/algorithm, write the paper and most importantly, get it published.

Do not be disheartened. The quality of papers matter, not the quantity when it comes to being evaluated by search committees.

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This answer is misleading. You start off by stating how its completely normal to not have papers for 2.5 years, and then go on to say that you did publish some workshop papers before. That those were not top venues is not the question - the OP asked about not having publshed at all. –  xLeitix Jul 25 '14 at 5:17
I do not think that my answer is misleading. I published workshop papers with other graduate students, not my adviser. Those had nothing to do with my dissertation. I will clarify my answer accordingly to reflect this. –  Shion Jul 25 '14 at 7:07
... but the OP still asked about having, and I'm quoting, no publications at all. –  Stephan Kolassa Jul 25 '14 at 9:46
Why does it matter who your coauthors were? Why does is matter if the publications had anything to do with your thesis? –  JeffE Jul 25 '14 at 12:53

I was in the exact same situation (also CS) and I would say that it is both normal and cause for concern. So there's no reason to take it personally, or to start worrying about your abilities, this happens to many people, but it is a situation that needs to be resolved. From now on, your number one priority should be to get a paper, put everything else on hold. Don't worry about getting enough papers, worry about getting one.

You have something under submission, so the odds are you'll get it accepted somewhere pretty soon. However, if you don't, I would recommend trying to find someone with experience who can coach you hands-on. Find someone who can read your draft in detail and tell you what needs to be done. 2.5 years with no publications is usually a sign that the supervisor is not paying very close attention, and it may be good to find someone who can pay close attention to you, at least for a bit. Getting a paper past reviewers is a strange, dark art, and it really helps to get some intense supervision for your first attempt.

edit after comment: Two further tips to help your situation:

  • Idea generation is a skill and you can work on getting better at it. [1 2 3]. If you're not generating ideas, tackle that problem head-on. Don't think of yourself as a non-creative person, and don't blame your subject: there are always exciting directions if you look hard enough.
  • Try to write a collaborative paper, ask a postdoc or a fellow PhD in your group to do some brainstorming, and to find an idea that you can work on together. That way, the work becomes less lonely, and you have at least one other person who cares about it. It might be a little scary to initiate something like this, but if the alternative is working by yourself for the next 2.5 years, you may consider stepping out of your comfort zone a little bit.
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I am in my 3.5+ year now, one year after I asked the question and I have one IEEE conference paper. I still feel bad about it. I still can go for 2.5 years in the program, but this is too much pressure. I rarely see my supervisor and she does not care at all. She does not even know what I am doing. I have fallen victim to depression because of the whole situation. I hope this year would be better! –  The Byzantine Oct 1 at 8:13
@TheByzantine I know how miserable and lonely this job can be if you're the only person who cares about your research. Hang in there, it does get better. I've added some tips to the answer. –  Peter Oct 1 at 11:46

My impression is that "in the olden days", it was normal that the PhD thesis was the first publishable research one produced. But as academia became more and more competitive, many advisers became aware of the fact that for their students to be considered "doing well", they should publish before the end of their PhD. Some people publish preliminary results of their PhD research, only to quote them later in their thesis.

I would say that at a broad range of universities, advisers are looking to help graduate students publish as soon as possible. (But most advisers also know that giving a publication "for free" doesn't help develop the research attitude of the student.)

Still, I've seen in various places the practice of letting a student carry out some easy calculation, which becomes part of a more advanced paper, which the student may not actually fully understand. But still the student is listed as co-author. This is supposed to prepare the student for "research" and it may be considered part of the "learning experience" to present this paper at seminars or conferences.

In this way some Master's students have a (usually joint) publication with their adviser (and possibly other students). In particular, this means that, by year 2.5 of their PhD they have at least 1 or 2 papers.

This practice seems to be common enough for interviewers to not even ask about joint publications of graduate students (maybe unless they are in top journals). (I've been interviewed for funding and my interviewer asked me "So, I saw on your CV that you have a singly-authored paper..." ignoring my B-grade journal joint publication.)

In that way "The System" knows about smart advisers. Now, advisers are trying to help students prepare singly-authored papers (or "first-authored" papers, depending on the field). The motivational barrier is now much higher, of course, since the adviser won't be listed as co-author. One pay-off for the adviser would be to increase his citation count by having the paper cite the adviser's papers.

(My personal impression is that "paper count" is a very poor measure of an application, but I also think it often still serves as a "rough first approximation" to the research ability of a student.)

To sum up, I think by now it is rather uncommon for a graduate student to have no publication by 2.5 years PhD. Many Postdoc positions in my field (Mathematics) are not filled with Postdocs, but rather PostPostPostdocs. Having no publications, or even just one publication resulting from your PhD work, I'm guessing it might prove rather difficult to find a job in academia.

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Most of your remarks are valid for computer science, with the exception of the "single author" part. In general, my impression is that it doesn't make any difference. First author X middle author does, but not single X multi. And, in CS, it is pretty common for undergrads to have conference papers as first authors and I know several masters' students that have a couple of journal papers as first authors. Of course, those guys are the top of the top, they are not the rule, but not that rare either... –  Fábio Dias Oct 1 at 0:35
@FábioDias Thanks for the feedback. I don't come from a field that has first author–second author distinctions, so I guess that "singly-authored" in my post might correspond to "first-authored" in CS and other fields with this distinction. –  Earthliŋ Oct 1 at 0:48
@FábioDias Whether first author versus middle author matters in CS depends on how theoretical a part of CS one is in. In purely theoretical CS, authors are ordered alphabetically. –  Tobias Kildetoft Oct 2 at 7:42

Yes, it's definitely normal.

It can take time to find the topic that's close to your heart. Once you find a topic that motivates you, the publications will flow.

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I wouldn't say it is normal, I would say it is not that big of a problem, but certainly not desirable.

It would be good for you to push harder and try to publish good articles now. And it seems you are already on this path.

I finished my phd with only one conference paper, and that was far from ideal and it did get in the way, a little...

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I would say it can be normal to have no publications until you're done with your PhD, and then your dissertation counts as your publication. There's nothing wrong with having no publications beforehand. These are often obsessions for university Deans and perhaps Admin, but they are not directly connected with the pursuit of knowledge or a Doctor of Philosophy.

In other words one can pursue knowledge without publishing anything. Further, a lessor degree does not say that you are ready to publish and contribute your own work to the corpus of the Establishment -- that SHOULD be saved until after you are rewarded the degree. The degree then acts as a badge you've earned as a member of the community.

Save publications for your career. Better to focus on making your PhD count for something, so that when you do get the award, you have something real to contribute to centuries of knowledge accumulation in Academe.

[Edit: for those arguing that it's accepted practice to dilute the publishing industry to meet your program's requirements, why don't you solicit your University to start the Journal for "Paper's Required towards my PhD".]

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Although that's normal in many (most?) fields, I'm not sure it's true in CS. –  Noah Snyder Jul 25 '14 at 4:59
they are not connected with the pursuit of knowledge - communicating your research to other scientists, and getting feedback from other scientists by having your work peer reviewed and presenting it at a conference (in CS), is certainly part of the pursuit of knowledge –  ff524 Jul 25 '14 at 7:29
If you're a PhD student, your career has already started. –  JeffE Jul 25 '14 at 12:55
@MarkJ PhD students are researchers. Dude. –  JeffE Jul 26 '14 at 2:56
Really? Crude language? Unnecessary @TheDoctor. –  tonysdg Oct 1 at 0:50

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