I am a theoretical computer science student working on algorithms. I am doubting myself a bit, as I have spent the last 6-7 months working on one problem. Although I am not able to solve the desired problem, I have been able to solve some specific cases. I am currently writing a paper as my research supervisor advised, but when I look at the work of other researchers in my field, my own research works seems insignificant. To me it appears that my (one- or two-page-long) algorithm may seem trivial to an established researcher.

Question: Is it okay if the work of PhD student seems insignificant as compared to other researchers in the field?

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    Are you comparing yourself to other established researchers or to other PhD students? – the L Aug 26 at 7:12
  • Are you working alone on your topic? What about the others that you are comparing yourself to? Are they large teams? – J-Kun Aug 26 at 7:35
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    You set a bounty even after there are quite a few answers. What do you expect to answer your question in a way you would like? This is a serious (not rhetoric) question, you seem to want to attract another type of answers as there already are and I think it is rather unclear what aspect you want to have discussed, which isn't discussed yet. – allo Sep 14 at 9:51
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    Even as a professor, I still feel this way. Keep that little voice out of your head :) – Austin Henley Sep 16 at 15:49

It is entirely normal that beginning students would achieve incremental results that compare poorly to the best papers from the best researchers in the field. Sometimes researchers need time to mature, and sometimes research directions just don't pan out even for the best of us. Not every worthwhile paper is revolutionary.

That said, it's impossible for us to tell whether you should be concerned or not. It's possible you did everything exactly right and this is where the science led you; it's also possible that you did not. The person best suited to judge this is your advisor. Since your advisor wants you to publish, it would seem that they are not too concerned. Still, asking them for feedback is likely a good idea.

It is actually very difficult to judge how significant your work is before you publish it and others try to use it or build something upon it. There are many examples of great scientists misjudging their work.

My favorite is John Nash's paper on equilibrium in games. Nash thought it wasn't a big deal so he allegedly didn't even bother wasting time to publish it. The story goes his adviser published it on his behalf. Now it is considered the most important paper in economics, if not all social sciences. He got a Nobel prize for it. Nobel committee usually features him on top of their economics website. 11 or now 12 more Nobel prizes were given for work directly based on this paper.

Just publish it and see how it works out.

In response to comments, this is just a story about Nash's initial attitude towards his discovery of equilibrium that I heard many times. Even if it is exaggerated, it is clear Nash couldn't have know the greatness of his discovery until much later. This documentary has some pieces of this story.

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    This is a mind-blowing anecdote. I know of anecdotes along these lines, but none that come close to comparing to this. – Stella Biderman Aug 26 at 15:48
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    That header doesn't mean that. In the past, articles published in Proc. National Academy of Sciences had to either include an author who was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, or be sponsored by a member, who selected reviewers themselves. "Communicated by" means that Nash's advisor sponsored it, because Nash wasn't a member himself. At one point, papers could bypass this process, like normal journals, and in 2010, communicating was abolished. If Nash wasn't connected, he couldn't have gotten the paper in PNAS. Today, a NAS member author still greatly improves your chance in PNAS. – user71659 Aug 26 at 16:23
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    Strictly speaking the economics prize is not a Nobel prize. The dude never wanted economics to be part of the price when he was alive. It's the prize of a national bank to honor his memory. – mathreadler Aug 26 at 17:51
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    @ArthurTarasov You missed the point. You misinterpreted how PNAS articles are published. When a PNAS article says "Communicated by", it does not mean anybody "published it on his behalf". The name listed there is the NAS member, who acted as the editor and arranged for the peer review of the paper. In the past, if you weren't a member of the NAS, the only way to get in PNAS was to have a NAS member you know, in this case Nash's advisor, act as an editor for you. In normal journals this would be a blatant conflict of interest, but its how PNAS, and some other national academies, work. – user71659 Aug 26 at 23:28
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    "His adviser published it on his behalf, as you can see in the header of the paper." The NAS member listed in the header is Lefschetz. Nash's advisor was Tucker. Nash wrote his PhD thesis on the topic, which "wasted" (obviously not!) more time than it takes to write a 2 page paper. Finally, Nash wrote three more papers on the topic in the next three years (he only wrote 21 papers in his entire career). In summary: your narrative about his attitude doesn't make much sense, except that he was also deeply interested in several pure mathematical topics. – Pete L. Clark Aug 27 at 3:06

I wouldn't be concerned at all. In fact, I ask "seems insignificant to who?" As you say, you doubt yourself, but your advisor (and others) may have no doubts at all.

In CS, as in mathematics, some problems are just harder (much harder) than others, so small results may actually be significant in search of a larger goal. I've worked on problems (in math) for which no progress could be made at all.

It is almost always good advice to follow your advisors direction in such things.

For many people, your own research will often seem insignificant compared to others for the simple reason that you've thought enough about the topic for things to feel obvious. This is especially the case in math and computer science. If you really do have such doubts, talk to your advisor. They should have more of an idea of how good your work is.

Researchers always need some time to mature. In a few exceptional cases, that maturation may happen before officially starting the PhD. Don't compare yourself against those exceptions. From my experience, the typical researcher only starts producing good papers in the second half of their PhD, or only after becoming a postdoc.

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    I agree. PostDoc especially. Maybe it is something about these 10 000 hours. – mathreadler Aug 26 at 18:00

To suggest an answer, based on personal experience and experience of my friends: I propose an illustration on how the 3 key variables in student's cognition, usually evolve during PhD studies (including completion of the thesis and peer-reviewed article publication), below. On the graph we have t axis for time period, orthogonal axis for relative value of the variables over time and: the psychological milestone of the PhD research.

rough illustration

So, in your cognition there are variables:

  • Cr - confidence in your research, i.e. that you'll successfully complete the research, defend the thesis and get the PhD. diploma

  • Rs - your impression on significance of your research in the relevant field and relative to the significance of the related works.

  • |Rw| - aggregated knowledge about fundamental and recent research approaches / works / proposals, i.e. number of related works you reviewed and really understood, in all relevant aspects

The interpretation of the graph:

  • After you formulate the research directions and initial draft, there is typical illusion that your work would have huge impact in the field i.e. that your contribution will become regular reference in future review articles in the field. Of course, such high value of Cr is just product of enthusiasmic-peak & ignorance on relevant works.
    • As you review and practically re-evaluate more and more of related research, Rs will continue to drop, however, you'll get better understating what is big and what tiny contribution in the field. i.e. the precision of your impression on Rs will rise.

The ultimate outcome of the whole game is function of criterion:

  • Would you reach the psychological milestone of your PhD research, before Cr breaks you down, causing you to leave the studies?

So, if you are still worried if your research is / will be / significant enough - you are on the left part of the t axis. Therefore, what you have to do: continue to dig and study related research -- as it would, beside discussed above, provide you with ideas how to adjust and/or re-frame your research to fit what seems to be ok significance.


Or, to provide simple answer: yes, it is ok (compared to research articles, published in journals with IF > 1.0). But, if the law on postgraduate studies / the statute of your university / PhD. studies / is anything similar to my case (or in general to European standards) - you should think on how to produce a research article (focused on a chapter from PhD. thesis), that should be "in the league" with related research article -- maybe not in the top, but in the same general cluster.

Hope this helps :)

Question: Is it okay if the work of PhD student seems insignificant as compared to other researchers in the field?

It is clear that the answer to your question is a unanimous yes, based on all the answers.

You are experiencing a (mild, hopefully) form of the impostor syndrome, a well known disease in academia which is especially virulent among PhD students.

As a scientist, you are probably aware that you can't objectively evaluate your own work (by definition). In academia, the evaluation of a researcher' work is done by anonymous reviewers when you submit a paper. So don't worry, your work will be duly evaluated, and the reviewers will give you some more objective feedback about your work (as objective as peer review can be, there is always a fair amount of chance in the process). Reviewers are unlikely to hold their punches so it might be unpleasant, but at least you will have a clearer idea of where your current work stands with respect to the expectations in your field. Whether the reviews turn out positive or not, they should give you indications about what is good and what should be improved in your approach.

In the meantime, try to avoid evaluating your own work, but more importantly avoid judging your own value based on a few months of early work. For many people, the PhD is a time of self doubt because for the first time one faces their own limitations in a very concrete way. In my opinion, the way to move forward is to consider it as an opportunity to not only explore one's own limitations, but also their skills and especially the unique ones: try to find out what you are particularly good at (it's generally the same as what motivates you), and direct your work in this direction as much as possible. But in case this kind of thoughts causes you too much anxiety, don't hesitate to seek psychological advice, there is nothing wrong with that.

  • The answer is referencing to the problem of evaluating somebody owns work. In subjects like Biology or Pedagogy it is indeed not possible. The only exception is Artificial Intelligence. If somebody has an idea, he can test it without asking anybody for advice. Such a workflow is sometimes surprising, because a single researcher can write a paper, recognizes that his neural network isn't working and decides to not publish it. – Manuel Rodriguez Sep 19 at 8:46
  • @ManuelRodriguez yes, in experimental domains there are objective evaluation methods which can validate or invalidate an idea. But even then, the quality of the scientific contribution is different: an experiment might be successful but its design flawed; conversely an experiment might fail but this negative result might be a significant contribution to the field. – Erwan Sep 19 at 22:54
  • I wouldn't call Biology an experimental domain. It is more based around telling stories and encourage people in independent thinking. A successful experiment in biology is equal to valuable group communication with the supervisor. – Manuel Rodriguez Sep 20 at 8:07

Yes, it is not only OK but is also the expected.

A PhD student is (ideally) someone seeking to learn how to do independent, quality research. This means that the academic focus therein should be on methods, standards, showing a professional capacity to do research.

Not all research is groundbreaking per se. Furthermore, the most influential ideas in History did not look so powerful at first. Research conclusions must withstand the test of time. In fact I am very suspicious of self-appointed hot research.

Relax, focus on the details, do your best, and forget about what others think or how to "look impressive".

protected by Alexandros Sep 16 at 20:03

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