I'm using a throwaway account for privacy. I know professors are human beings and "I can just ask", but, as this is the start of the relationship, I don't want to seem rude - or to seem that I am interviewing them. This potential advisor has published papers in top journals before, but nothing for the last 3 years.

I know this question is related: PhD with a supervisor who has not published anymore since 2014, but this professor is quite young, so the situation is different.

I think that if I ask them about "their current research interests" they will just talk about the current project that is about to begin - without addressing the issue I'm interested in.

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    What's your discipline? – user2768 Dec 18 '18 at 17:58
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    Make the question sound as if it's your inability to look, not that there's nothing to see. "I've been trying to find some of your recent papers but I can't seem to locate anything, can you point me in the right direction please..." – alephzero Dec 18 '18 at 19:28
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    @alephzero, but no papers of them appear in google scholar. Shouldn't I ask IF they have been doing anything recently? Because maybe they haven't – John Doe Dec 18 '18 at 20:17
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    @JohnDoe General question, did you see they haven't published anything from their professional website? Most faculty only update that once per decade. You check this in google scholar, right? – axsvl77 Dec 18 '18 at 23:26
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    Who knows, this supervisor might be more interested in quality than in quantity? It would be a rare find in those damn "publish or perish" days. – Eric Duminil Dec 19 '18 at 7:46

Instead of a question that might be insulting, you should probably ask them what they've been working on for the past few years. You need to know that in any case and their answer might give you the reason that they haven't got anything out recently. There may be a lot of work in progress but not yet ready. That sort of thing can actually be an advantage to you and knowing what it is, certainly is.

But if their answer indicates not much research, then you might want to keep looking.

By the way, this is a topic for a sit down conversation, not just an email. The latter might work, but would require more work from the prof and so you might not get as complete an answer.

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    I think the "lot of work in progress" is an important point. Most professors have a gap in their publication record right after they start their own group: You move from a fully funded and equipped group with many research strands on the boil, to an empty room with no people, no equipment, no funding and no on-going projects. It takes a while to get up and running. – Ian Sudbery Dec 19 '18 at 10:23
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    Most professors are pretty happy to actually show you around and introduce you to people in the group which would definitely provide some extra side-channel information. Another advantage of not just asking in an email. – user102072 Dec 21 '18 at 2:02

I think in a very real sense, you are, in fact, interviewing potential advisers. It would be rather disingenuous for a potential adviser to believe that he or she is beyond the bounds of accountability for his/her research record. I would say something such as the following:

I am interested in participating in publishing papers. Would we be able to publish papers together?

What types of projects/papers have you worked on in the last few years?

What are some of the current papers or projects you are working on?

A quality adviser would have quality answers for these questions. Moreover, they would know that it would play in their favor to have at least some explanation as to why they have not published lately. These questions will open the door for them to provide an explanation of their research record. If they seem to dodge around that time period, I'm honestly not sure that they should be your number one choice for an adviser.

I would also verify that this is not just a matter of their CV being out of date. Perhaps they have published papers and just have not updated their CV in a while.

Aside: If I can give my personal thoughts on choosing a young, unproven adviser, I would recommend avoiding professors who have not established themselves somewhat. I have seen a number of PhD students who run into issues when they choose a professor who has not yet been given tenure and who is constrained by the "publish or perish" mentality.

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    I note that in some traditions and communities in my area (pure maths FWIW), supervisors actively avoid publishing with their students during the period of the PhD. Also "accountability" seems a strange choice of word to me – Yemon Choi Dec 18 '18 at 19:08
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    Also, the implication that the length/density of a publication list is the most important measure of the worth of a researcher/scholar is ... disputable in some subjects and contexts, and does NOT mean they would be bad at training someone for research. (My 2cents, YMMV, etc) – Yemon Choi Dec 18 '18 at 19:13
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    Lastly for now: "it essentially sounds like you are advocating giving PhD students projects which do nothing to further your own academic career." Well, certainly not all of my colleagues would agree with me, but yes, when I think of a good PhD (sub)project for a new student, I am not doing it so they can help me with my research, because my research requires a large chunk of the 10 years' headstart I have on my students. I choose a project where I think the student can learn, with my guidance, how to do research, not how to do the gruntwork for my research – Yemon Choi Dec 18 '18 at 20:49
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    @YemonChoi, are you sure it’s a universal habit in pure maths not to publish with one’s advisers (or advisor)? I am a pure mathematician, but have never heard of such a convention. – LSpice Dec 19 '18 at 1:37
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    @LSpice But I think in our area of pure math it's a bit worrisome if all of a student's papers are joint with their advisor. I've certainly had discussions with colleagues about this, even though I know people who've done it and been successful. It's like how if a tenure-track applicant's publications are all joint with senior people, this can cause some doubt over a candidate. – Kimball Dec 19 '18 at 14:37

Given the publish or perish mentality, a (young) researcher that "has published...nothing for the last 3 years" is heading towards perishing, at least, they are in many disciplines.*

Although I agree with Buffy that "[they] may [have] a lot of work in progress but not yet ready" and that "sit down conversation, not just an email" is most appropriate, I feel that nothing for three years is simply too long and it doesn't give much confidence that they can help you churn out publications (to get a PhD).

I recommend rethinking their suitability as a supervisor.

*As noted in the comments, established researchers (or researchers with protected employment statuses) enjoy more freedom.

I'm not an advocate of the publish or perish mentality, but that's the world we live in.

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    Which disciplines do you have in mind? Also, I guess that your first sentence only really applies to younger researchers in countries/systems that don't have tenure: older researchers in systems with tenure might be risky choices as supervisors, but they need not be "heading towards perishing" – Yemon Choi Dec 18 '18 at 19:10
  • I think it is true across many disciplines, certainly across many of the disciplines I know researchers in. Actually, I can't think of a researcher that I know personally that could "get away" with not publishing for three years. Perhaps I should widen my circle... Regarding tenure, I'm somewhat unconvinced for tenure at a top institute, lesser institutes, sure. – user2768 Dec 19 '18 at 6:45
  • It also depends upon the country, and the status of the supervisor. Notice that Peter Higgs did not publish a lot (and explicitly told that by current -foolish- "publish a lot of useless papers" standards, he won't make an academic career today). In France, J.Pitrat did not publish a paper every year, but was recognized as one of the French pionners of artificial intelligence (and supervised quite well a lot of PhDs) – Basile Starynkevitch Dec 21 '18 at 9:19
  • @BasileStarynkevitch How does country have an impact? (I certainly agree that an established professor has more freedom, but that's not the case for the OP's question, in which the supervisor is young and unestablished.) – user2768 Dec 21 '18 at 9:25
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    In France, once you have a tenured position in a public-sector organization (like CNRS, INRIA, CEA, etc...) your career won't suffer a lot (notably when you are a few years from retirement) if you don't publish several papers per year. I heard that it is quite specific to France. I tend to believe that the "publish" (shitty papers) "or perish" rule could be stronger in the US than in France (for tenured employees of public-sector organizations) – Basile Starynkevitch Dec 21 '18 at 9:27

Just to point out some possible reasons that may be entirely private and something they don't want to discuss with anyone :

  • Were on national "military" service (which does not always require you to be in the military, BTW).
  • Had or has an illness or a family member who was or is seriously ill. ( And this may itself make it impossible for them to be removed from their position depending on the nature of their contract and local laws).
  • Suffered a bereavement - if you're young and have not lost anyone really close, you need to understand this can be shattering and take years to recover from.
  • Likes to teach and is good enough at it to satisfy the institute's needs - teaching is a vocation and it's a pity it's not more respected at third level.
  • Has a permanently tenured position they can't be removed from - rare but possible
  • Was doing confidential work, e.g. for government or commercial, which can't be published.
  • Took time off to wander the Earth (or whatever). By the time you complete a PhD you'll probably need/want to do that too, as it's emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting.
  • May have been on some sort of parental leave, part time or full time. Note that in some places men get parental leave entitlement too, so gender may not be an issue.
  • May be involved in a long term study or studies that requires a lot of work but generates no publishing opportunities.

I'd also caution against dismissing a non-publishing supervisor. Publishing may be the common goal nowadays but it doesn't mean it's a good idea. I'd honestly prefer fewer publications of higher quality and real depth than the rush to publish anything mentality we have now. Not being published does not mean they're not a good supervisor, or even that they don't know a great deal about the field(s) that interest you. A supervisor is someone who offers intellectual and administrative support and advice to you. You need a supportive mentor who can steer you through the difficult process of getting a PhD. Not all research publication orientated supervisors are good at this, IMO. Is their being published frequently relevant to your getting a PhD ? That's your decision.

You do need to sit down and discuss your issue with the potential supervisor. As someone suggested, it's best to think of this as you interviewing them just as much as they'll be interviewing you. Both parties need to know that the person on the other side of the table is someone who is going to do what they need.

Remember when talking to them that you may be hitting sensitive issues they're not comfortable with, so watch out for negative reactions.

@AlphaZero's comment was very relevant :

Make the question sound as if it's your inability to look, not that there's nothing to see. "I've been trying to find some of your recent papers but I can't seem to locate anything, can you point me in the right direction please..."

Maybe add that you're interested in making sure you're both a good match.

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  • Thank you. Something I don't know is if when looking for a post-doc, someone will look up the publications of the advisor...I think that's also relevant. – John Doe Dec 19 '18 at 12:10
  • I would certainly look them up, however I would also talk to them. I would never suggest taking a supervisor you have not talked to and got a good feeling for - and vice versa. A good supportive supervisor is invaluable, and a bad unsupportive one can be a disaster. – StephenG Dec 19 '18 at 12:54

Just straight up and ask him. Short direct question without fencing, apologies, or caveats. Then shut up and listen to what he says and let him speak at length. Sort of like how Brian Lamb does interviews. If you are skillful, you can even use silence from a quick response to compel a deeper explanation.

It's probable that the guy is not right guy to advise you, irrespective of his answer. But who knows, maybe you learn something to change your mind. Or just to know what he is up to.

If he says "I'm a p-chemist and have been building a laser for last 3 years", it's actually a good response. But don't believe him when he says it is about to start spitting out publications. It will need another 3 years.

If he gets upset, then that is one more learning why to avoid him. Don't mince around too much with these guys like a mouse.

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Frame challenge to your question

I don't want to seem rude - or to seem that I am interviewing them.

This is an abdication of your responsibility to simultaneously interview those who are interviewing you, and an unethical position which privileges those with institutional power to dictate the terms of a negotiation (implying that 'negotiation' should be coercive).

Second, professors live interesting lives with many demands. Were I asked by a prospective student, mentee, etc. "Out of curiosity I while I was reading up on your research, I noticed you haven't published on these topics recently. Are you still engaged with research in this area?" I would feel (1) this person took the time to learn about my interests and engage with me about them, (2) they are interested in knowing about my current research directions, and (3) they want to understand the work demands on a researcher in my area, all of which speak well of them from their side of the interview.

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You should certainly ask a potential advisor about what they've been working on. To fully understand a publication gap, it may be important to learn something about their career goals and motivation. These kind of questions can seem a little impertinent if you ask them indelicately. A canned question is unlikely to serve you well here, but realize during the back and forth with this person that you want to understand their motivations. Having worked under someone who wanted to publish every little observation, and also someone who didn't want to publish until we had something earth shattering, it's good to learn these things up front. Both can be frustrating -- more so, if you didn't see it coming.

I'd add, you may be able to learn a fair amount in a sit-down discussion with this potential advisor, but you won't get the entire picture without talking to their students and staff. Ultimately, it is more important to know if this person will be supportive of your developing career and your publication goals.

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I think that any real scientist can easily answer any of such questions. If not, he is not real scientist. Doesn't matter how much he has in publication or any of so-called "scientological" metrics (I am making fun of any "metrics" because those are what bureacracy wants, any real scientist does NOT).

What you are essentially doing is asking the scientist: "Look dude, I'm having this stupid metrics of mine, and this metrics says you have low something. Tell me about this low something please".

Of cause any real scientist will understand and tell you that it is your metrics speaking, but not his works.

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Perelman practically didn't publish anything from 1995 to 2000. Result: Proof of PC. So maybe it's a good thing your potential advisor didn't publish in the last few years ;)

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    Unless your supervisor isn't Perelman. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 19 '18 at 16:50
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    Welcome to academia.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already. This could be the start of a good answer, but right now it doesn't really answer the question. Could you elaborate on how your example is relevant to the asker, and address how they should proceed? – user8283 Dec 20 '18 at 5:08

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