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I work in a quite competitive sub-field of computer science. In computer science, we have the publication culture where people publish mostly in the proceedings of different conferences. As in other sub-fields, we have several conferences that are super selective and thus highly prestigious, and a few others that are OK but not so valuable. I am a mid-late PhD student, and I have an extremely poor record of getting into those top-tier venues. I've had at least five rejections in the last years. All my papers are published elsewhere and I am personally OK with that, I still believe that my work has value: it was cited, I got personal praises for the content and quality of my work. The problem is that the attitude of my adviser and some other people in the field is that only the papers from the prestigious venues count, and everything else is "meh" no matter what the actual content of the paper is. Moreover, it seems that one has no future in academia without those publications. This situation makes me quite depressed at times: it devalues all the hard work I have done in last six years of my life and makes me feel like I am wasting my time and should drop out. So questions:

1) Does my lack of ability to deliver those high profile publications at this stage really mean that my academic future is bleak?

2) If I decide to stay in (at least to finish the PhD), how can I deal with being my work massively devalued just to keep myself sane?

P.S. We even have a ranking based on those publications: http://csrankings.org/

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    Honestly, I am less and less convinced that the triage occurring through peer-review is that good. Certainly the most brilliant papers get to the most selective venues, ok, but that is easy to achieve. Then between the great-but-not-not-so-stellar that also get in and those who do not, I feel like the noise over signal ratio is pretty bad. You should continue to aim for the conferences that will help you get a job, and do your best, but try not to take those rejection too personally. I have little doubt what my best work is, and it got rejected 5 times and ended in a good-but-not-great venue. – Benoît Kloeckner Mar 26 '18 at 19:52
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    I don't know the field that well -- to what degree is double-blind review practiced? There is a growing body of evidence that single-blind review leads to inequitable publication results in many fields. Here's one example. (The point being that you might find you have considerably more success submitting to double-blind venues.) – senderle Mar 26 '18 at 20:12
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    @BenoîtKloeckner, I agree. I don't like the current publication system. There are many issues with peer review, I witnessed them firsthand, both as an author and as a reviewer. They are exacerbated in compsci with its conference-style publication culture which brings its own unique problems. I also find the idea that only top-tier publications matter quite bizarre. But as a student I have zero influence on the system and have to somehow adapt to survive within it. – laola Mar 26 '18 at 20:19
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    If you're thinking of dropping out of academia, and moving to industry, then still finish the PhD. You will have a qualification that most of the other job candidates don't, and nobody will care where your papers were published. – Simon B Mar 26 '18 at 21:28
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    From personal experience: if you are close to finishing and are able to do so, complete the PhD even if you have no intention of continuing in academia. The qualification is very valuable outside of academia, and it is not very likely that employers will judge your abilities by the particular place you have published. This is what I did: I got fed up with the publication requirements of academia, switched to commercial employment and never looked back. – RoG Mar 27 '18 at 6:56
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First, congratulations! You've published papers, been cited, and gotten praise from colleagues! You've shown that you can publish, and I don't think your adviser and others would be pushing you if they thought you didn't have a shot at the top conferences and journals.

  • Are any of the people who have cited or praised you in a position that you could collaborate with them and/or pursue a postdoc? They have indicated that they know and value the quality of your work, and they might be able to help you raise your profile. That would be a promising path forward.

Academia is full of criticism and critics. It is easiest to give broad criticism, and it takes a lot of interpretation to make that constructive and to separate critical feedback on your work from your self worth.

  • One way to deal with the devaluation might be to try it your adviser's way. That is, since you know you can get your ideas published somewhere, see what it takes to aim at a higher publication. With your next research idea, plan to spend much more time on revision. Ask your adviser and anyone else who will comment what it would take to hone that into a top publication. Does it need a broader scope? Do you need to deal with more subcases? Is the idea itself too peripheral or incremental? Do you need to explicitly link it to more pressing issues in the field?

  • CS tends to have multiple-author papers. Can you collaborate on a paper that your adviser thinks has promise for getting into a top journal? (Either one that your adviser spearheads or one with a postdoc or fellow student?) You might learn more about the editing process they use, and the successful publication might help raise your profile.

  • Study how people present ideas in top proceedings and journals. You might not love their style--they may be more limited in length than in less selective venues, perhaps requiring them to be more opaque and more formulaic in order to pack in more results. But you, too, can write in that style if that's what it takes. What else do you see about the abstracts and papers that you can emulate?

  • Another way to survive is to think carefully about what you are proud of in your own work and what you value in others' work. This might give you a sense of who you want your closest colleagues and mentors to be.

  • Thanks for the encouragements. I am pretty sure I can get a reasonable postdoc (I could be wrong), but I don't if it is worth it. I see some students producing high-tier publications year after year, and when I imagine that I will have to compete with them on the job market it makes cringe. – laola Mar 26 '18 at 20:12
  • I know that feeling. :) If it helps, having competitive work does not necessarily mean you have to act "competitive" (in the "petty" and "jealous" sense). I'd strongly suggest using this opportunity with your pushy adviser to explore how it feels to you to aim your work higher. You'll have fewer regrets about whatever choice you make if you can say, "I saw what it takes to get published in X, and what the rewards are, and for me it is [not] worth it." – cactus_pardner Mar 26 '18 at 20:23
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1) Does my lack of ability to deliver those high profile publications really mean that my academic future is bleak?

In all honesty, within Computer Science it is quite important to have some top-level publications (caveat: I am/was also in a sub-discipline of Comp. Sci. and so I cannot speak for your specific area). Some people advise only going for top-level conferences, and this is why I instead question your premise.

Are you really unable to deliver high profile publications? I think, given the lottery of the reviewers we all get, combined with the quality of your publications in general, that is not likely. Are you resubmitting your papers to high-level venues, or do you soon after move it down a tier? Many people submit and resubmit until the stars align or the reviewers capitulate.

I think it's less likely that you're incapable and more likely bad luck (but there are also other factors orthogonal to the research quality, such as how you sell your work).

2) If I decide to stay in (at least to finish the PhD), how can I deal with being my work massively devalued just to keep myself sane?

Focus on the quality of research and your citations. If these are high-quality publications, just think about the future, as you stay within academia they'll be cited more and more. Particularly as you start getting those more-visible publications and your profile improves.

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    We have a few top conferences with the deadlines being close, if it is rejected by one, submit to another. If rejected again, go down a tier as holding the publication for a year for the next "season" is deemed unreasonable. I don't know if I really lack the ability to generate high-profile papers. Sometimes I feel like we have a strong paper, but then it gets down multiple times. Quality standards are also confusing (I did my share of reviewing and seen things...) But you are probably right as the luck seems to matter a lot. – laola Mar 26 '18 at 16:55
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    "go down a tier as holding the publication for a year for the next "season" is deemed unreasonable" - in my area, researchers are persistent enough to keep submitting the same paper to top venues from one season to the next. I wonder if some researchers in your area are like this too, and whether your approach may even be the exception (it might not, of course). – Dr. Thomas C. King Mar 26 '18 at 17:36
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    Not sure of the norms in this field: can you present similar work at multiple conferences? (I know a journal publication has to have X% new work vs. proceedings.) In fields without proceedings, people often "workshop" their work across different conferences. – cactus_pardner Mar 26 '18 at 17:54
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    That's a good point. Yes, conferences are important for Comp. Sci. But sometimes people collect publications from low-tiered venues and wrap them up for a top-tiered journal. That would look pretty good. – Dr. Thomas C. King Mar 26 '18 at 18:25
  • We have a mixture of conferences, at some people just present and don't publish, at the others people publish in the proceedings. – laola Mar 26 '18 at 20:07
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First, I must commend you for bravely writing about your experiences and being so forthcoming about your, and others' ("environment"), perception of your standing in the field; especially as a woman, which I think cannot be discounted in this field (even though I am sure you would not want me to acknowledge your gender in this context, and for that I apologise).

Additionally, like others, I first must congratulate you on being able to publish in the area and you should take some solace in that. Your supervisor, and others', attitude towards non-prestigious publications is nothing new, but that hardly excuses it.

In order to better tailor our answer(s) to your needs, I think you should mention two things:

  1. As a mid-late student, I assume you are not just "PhD student", but a "PhD Candidate", correct?

At this point in your PhD, you should be a candidate. Most supervisors I've known expect their students to be ready for candidacy within about 3 years of starting. If you are a candidate, I would not so-easily consider quitting.

  1. What do you seek to get out of your PhD? "A job"? Tenure? Employment involving the area you're currently doing research?

If I was to use your assessment as the ground truth, I do not know of tenure is legitimately in the cards (who am I to say this, though?). It is possible, but it may take a lot of sycophancy that you may not find ideal. I think completing your PhD (if you're a candidate) would greatly improve your opportunities to do research in this area, and may even help with getting "a job" in said-area.

If you enjoy the research, maybe you could find a way to be a research assistant without feeling the pressure that is associated with completing your PhD? Surely there are positions available either in industry/academia that can fulfill this desire?

  • I know this is going to come off as cliché but "Forget what others think of your work". This is one thing I must give my supervisor a great deal of credit for. He cared about publications and their quality, rather than their venue (he always hoped our work could get in top venues, but always prepared the student to be rejected ["that's the way it goes"]). I feel like that is the same advice I should pass on to you, and to help reinforce it I wanted to share my own story:

In my area (also a subdiscipline of Computing Science), conferences are the predominant medium. However, I found much of my work was actually more journal-oriented. Thus, I naturally diverged from the "herd" even though I was fortunate to be at the opposite-end of the spectrum (if we are being blunt with self/environmental assessments of the student).

Humorously enough, much of my Master's Thesis (I wasn't allowed to "upgrade" to a PhD, even though my work had more than enough meat on the bone. Go figure!) was published in a venue that later-came-to-be-known as "predatory" (Frontiers). I had two publications on the eve of my convocation (both Frontiers). However, anyone who looks at the work-in-question will see the handling editor is an extremely reputable individual in the area, which was a saving grace. This is one way I wanted to demonstrate to you that the venue is not as-important as those who shepherd the work from submission to acceptance.

Indeed, I ended up getting another publication from work undertaken during my masters, in a top tier (applied) statistics journal without any previous work in the area. It turns out the editor did some behind-the-scenes "who is this person?" before deciding to send the work out for review, and when they made that decision it was made clear to me they will publish it if I meet the expectations. It took two reject-with-resubmissions, but it all worked out. So do not discount the words of praise with respect to the quality of your work. Sometimes they do (and in my case: did) help.

I hope this demonstrates that, when it comes to legitimate assessments from a reputable individual in the area, quality will always be the number one ingredient. I had no "prestigious" publications under my belt until they gave me my first (and only [hehe ;)] one.

I think your decision to remain/quit should not focus on "coping" with the denigration of your contributions, as I've unfortunately found this attitude to pervade many "intellectual" areas. Quitting does not seem to be a reasonable option given that you're almost (2/3 in the worst case) done your PhD.

What I think your decision should be based on is: your path to graduation (6 years is what my supervisor TYPICALLY expected, though he himself took 9! [caveat: he is a Stanford PhD, Caltech BSc, and this was 30 years ago. it's a challenging area!]), your anticipated graduation date (have you spoken with your supervisor?), your desired role in the workforce with this education, and whether you enjoy your work in the absence of the prestigious publications.

From a personal perspective, I derive great pleasure from my contributions to the subdiscipline (Frontiers included) because it gave me a sense of belonging.

Some people can "save the field", but those people would probably say that the field saved their life. I know that being able to produce good research and being acknowledged for it (no matter what tier of publication venue), saved my life.

I would hope others in the discipline have a similar feeling. I know my inspirations in the field (two of whom passed far-before their time) felt the same way, and I guess it infected me. I think this should be the crucial ingredient in determining whether you finish your PhD.

Again I commend you for sharing your experience; it is not too different from others', and I hope the ensuing discussion will be helpful to all who come across your question.

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    PhD candidate = PhD student = PhD researcher - At least in the UK. There really is no difference. No matter where you are in your PhD, you are classed as a student until either you have passed or until the maximum duration of your PhD has been reached (4 years in the UK for many universities). - You could submit before the 4 year deadline and have your defence and final submission later. – DetlevCM Mar 27 '18 at 6:35
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    What makes you think OP is a woman? – Arnaud D. Mar 27 '18 at 12:02
  • These days, asking students to complete a PhD in 4 years is "lofty" DetlevCM, but it is comforting to know the Motherland has it right. If not for the politics at my institution, I feel i would have finished a PhD an additional year (2 years for my masters, so an additional year to beef up the survey, and maybe add another angle analysis-wise to the datasets) for a total of 3 years. After your insightful remark, I am beginning to question the Daughterland's commitment to scholasticism (which wouldn't have happened 50 years ago). Standards need to be more in line with the norms back home. – gagan Mar 27 '18 at 16:45
  • @gagan It is actually a requirement in the UK. If you do not submit within 4 years in the UK, the university will consider you to have failed the PhD - for the ones that I know. (You may get a downgrade to an MPhil though.) In the past, Germany didn't use to have a time limit - though there may only be money to pay you for 3-4 years. So in the many people finished their PhD after starting work. Though for people on scholarships today at a research institute 3-4 years is again the target. In France, the target today is again 3-4 years, though some people take longer to write up. – DetlevCM Mar 28 '18 at 6:15
  • @gagan Oh, and as an extra: In the UK it is also possible to take the direct route of BSc -> PhD without a Masters in between. In addition, while "European Masters" are (as far as I know always) 2 years, the UK Master (in many or most cases) is 1 year. – DetlevCM Mar 28 '18 at 6:17

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