I am a PhD student. I was working on some problem from last 5-6 months and some days I was able to solve it. I discuss with my research team including my research supervisor. I told them my idea and approach and then they discuss for 40-50 minute and asked me few questions and I gave them answers. They ask me to combine it with my previous smaller result and told me that it is a complete research paper. but here is a problem, I have seen some of the research papers written by some senior colleagues in my research field and with respect those people my research problem and its solution seems less significant. I am not comparing myself with them but with respect to these top researchers my work seems small. Some time I feel that I have done something non-trivial and some time I feel like my research work in trivial.

Question : How to come to know that you have done some thing non-trivial in the research? One way is to read the research papers of others. What are other ways?

  • 17
    This is usual after solving a problem
    – abaa
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 18:12
  • 17
    Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 23, 2018 at 11:23
  • Knowing what is a publishable result is something that comes with experience. For now, trust your supervisor's judgment and write up and submit the paper. Even if it turns out that your concerns are valid and the result really isn't significant enough to warrant publication, writing the paper is still worthwhile for the practice. If the result is indeed trivial, the editor and/or reviewers will undoubtedly let you know.
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 13:43

7 Answers 7


It's not surprising that the work of a Ph.D. student "seems less significant" than that of "top researchers". That seems an unreasonable comparison. The reason those guys are top researchers is exactly that their work is (usually) better than what the rest of us produce. That's not a reason for all of us non-top researchers to stop publishing. If your adviser says you've got something worth publishing, then write it up and publish it.

  • 2
    Do you consider yourself a "non-top researcher"? You seem to me to be a quite famous researcher in set theory.
    – user96097
    Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 15:45
  • 1
    @user419308 Thanks. That obviously depends on how big one takes the"top" to be. When I think of top researchers in set theory, I think of people like Shelah, Woodin, or Todorcevic. Commented Jul 17, 2018 at 15:55

In a recent project I felt that I had somewhat trivial results, and that I needed to add more to it before writing the paper. The new steps turned out to be so non-trivial, and take so long time, that I decided to write up what I had in the meantime. By putting the work so far in the form of a proper paper - you know, with an introduction that attempts to convince others that the work is interesting and worthwhile - I ended up convincing myself that the results were non-trivial and made for a good paper already.

In hindsight I had worked on related stuff long enough that my results seemed less novel to me than they would to another person. So, my advice is to write it up, and trust your supervisor.


Two points worth making:

Firstly, that there is a huge range of published papers out there. Some are ground-breaking, while most are incremental. The incremental are still worthwhile.

Secondly, that when you have been working on a problem for months or years, it's easy to lose perspective. Because you've been absorbed in it, it starts to seem trivial or obvious, but to people who aren't intimately familiar it may still be new and interesting. The best way to regain this perspective is probably to talk to your colleagues, but you could also consider presenting at a conference (being careful not to prejudice future journal publication).

  • 1
    The poster child of your second point is Perelman and his work with Ricci flow. According to him, he just extended the work of others. According to everyone else, he completed what is likely to be one of the most important results in mathematics.
    – JWH2006
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 18:34

In my opinion, there are two key points to non-trivial research.

  1. Novelity. If no one has done this before, it's new. To find this out, you do literature research. Well, you surely did literature research before going all-out and trying to obtain this result yourself?
  2. Impact. How important is this result for the field. This is a tricky part, as you might try to answer this yourself (and should, really, in the why-does-this-matter part of the introduction of prospective paper), the real answer to this is the acceptance by the community. First stop is peer review, second stop is citation metric.

Judging a work is inherently subjective, and if its your own work, its easy to be positively biased or negatively biased towards it. (In my field there is a popular saying - when you do an experiment, everybody believes it except you; when you run a model, nobody believes it except you).

Naturally, the less subjective the judgement becomes, the more validity it gains. Staying up to date with recent research is very good, but its still individualistic and subjective - you are seeing other's research through your own lens of affinities and biases. This can be tackled by actively discussing themes with your colleagues/fellow students. Do this even with people in related but non-identical fields. Establish networks with peers in other universities/labs- this will really help you stay up to date, expose you to different perspectives and build friendships that will be invaluable in the long run. Be active on discussion fora/stacks related to your field. Imagine how easy we have it today (in this aspect) compared to the days of pen-and-paper correspondence.

Finally, IMO the most important way to judge the quality of your work is by writing and submitting it. Obviously, submission is (with reasonable exceptions) the ultimate yardstick of quality (from multiple perspectives- co-authors/reviewers/editor). Notwithstanding this, the writing stage is crucial - a lot of bias and ambiguity vanishes when you put it on paper and structure it into a report/manuscript.Write, read, edit, read, edit. This process will force you to examine your work with the right degree of critical review.


Out of my own experience, and that of my colleagues, PhD students almost inevitably hit that point (usually by the end of their PhD) where they come to believe that their work is insignificant.

I believe that this feeling of lack of achievement boils down to the fact that the researcher is so much into their research that it seems trivial to them, regardless of its real value.

You know your domain too well to correctly value it.


'Trivial' is a very subjective term. A work can be trivial in the colloquial sense in that it is not a current hot topic or active area of research, or it can be trivial if your conclusions are not substantiated by the data available, or trivial in that it solves only a very esoteric problem. In the best case, you conduct a work in a hot area, address a foundational assumption, and obliterate it with tight experimental design and clear data. If your data is strong, results substantiated, and the topic important to you, it is certainly non trivial in your arena.

  • I will also point out that trivial is a temporal term as well. What is trivial in the 1950's (perceptrons) is of immense importance today (neural networks).
    – JWH2006
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 18:36

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