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I am a final year PhD student in materials science. My colleagues publish papers at a rate of 2-3 papers a year. By the end of their PhD, they would have around 8-10 papers (first authors) in their name. While I on the other hand, am struggling.... struggling hard.

How do people produce so many work in such a short time? I take around 3 months trying out some hypothesis and if it does work then I require at least 2 months to produce enough data. So, in all, it takes around 7 months to complete a work for a paper. Then it will get submitted and so on.

While my colleagues start a work and publish it within 7 months. Which means they conceptualize, run simulations, gather data and write a manuscript in 3 months! I am not able to comprehend this.

What am I doing wrong? How can one be so productive? I feel so inadequate and am thinking of quitting academia after my PhD. Probably, I am not fit for academic life. I love doing research, but I have realized late that, just loving research is not enough.

My advisor says my progress is good. But, having looked at my advisor's PhD thesis, she had 5 submitted papers towards the end of her PhD.

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    10 first author papers while getting a materials science doctorate? Each with actual new material, new ideas, a new hypothesis? That's just excessive, or let's say impossible. – Karl Jul 6 at 18:16
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    Not worth an answer, but a comment from someone who basically let the chance pass that you still have: Publish. That's it. Generate papers for the sake generating papers. Nobody cares whether your research is innovative. Just publish. Swallow your pride and publish. – Marco13 Jul 6 at 22:26
  • Is measuring something and publishing the measures an alternative too you? Something somewhere is definitively changing, some industry is using more of that, or less, or recycling better. – Quora Feans Jul 7 at 0:01
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    While all the advice to publish more is reasonable, I still suggest being careful about the quality. At least check that there's no mistakes and all the conclusions are fully supported by your actual results and/or references. I think publishing average papers is alright, but publishing bad papers is bad for your long term career. That aside, there's nothing wrong with repeating something that's already been done, as long as you reference the previous works. Checking both experimental and numerical results of other groups independently is as important as doing something new – Yuriy S Jul 8 at 11:43
  • @Karl The problem is that they do not do this with all new materials, ideas and hypothesis. Pressure to publish is so high that the type of papers most PhD students will publish, to achieve the 8-10 first author papers (currently quite common by my experience), basically consists of finding a niche for a particular combination of synthesis parameters, or characterization techniques, or slightly different results, that is still missing in literature and which is enough to tell a story. But then, most of times these works are quite uninteresting and lack long term strategy or systematic research – cinico Jul 8 at 12:57
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For better or worse, number of publications is increasingly seen as a metric for productivity and competence in some fields and countries. Depending on where you are (geographically and discipline-wise) it is more about producing and publishing papers than about having something novel and relevant to show, unfortunately.

As an early career scholar, it is important to find out if you are in one of those places where you should be producing papers instead of producing knowledge. If that is the case, try to learn what are the tricks used by people around you and emulate them. As much as I’d like to tell you to not do that, it may be the only way to stay in the game in the long run. How can you produce good and relevant research if you have been forced out of academia by the “publish or perish” system?

If it is the case that you are in one of those environments/disciplines where publication counts are inflated, you need to play along if you want to stay in the game. You need to strike a balance between doing the really interesting high quality stuff and doing the cookie-cutter low-hanging-fruit run-of-the-mill papers that increase your publication count.

Some people who publish a lot are truly doing cutting-edge research and publishing a lot due to that. Not everyone is that lucky or that good. If you look closely, many of those publishing a lot are compromising in terms of quality and impact. They may have their own tricks, perhaps involving dubious practices like fishing for significance, for example, or perhaps they are just really good at slicing the sausage really thin and turning one good study into a dozen papers. If your discipline in your country is one of those that only care for quantity (some places reward mediocrity in large numbers over geniality), you will only harm your career prospects by going against that system. Learn from how your peers do it, at least for the moment, so that you can get tenure. Once your place within academia is secured, then you can worry about the rest.

Lastly, once you have your research group and your collaboration networks, then you can further inflate your publication counts by co-authoring with your colleagues, PhD students, and post-docs, but that is something further down the road for you.

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    I think your answer shouldn't ignore the "My advisor says my progress is good." Statement OP made. – Zaibis Jul 8 at 6:09
7

Number of papers is a notoriously poor measure of research output. For example, is one major paper worth less than 2-3 minor papers?

Some people are really productive for various reasons. Sometimes people have been very lucky and their projects have worked out very quickly. Also, everyone develops as a researcher at different rates. As you get more experience you will be able to avoid many time consuming pitfalls and your publication rate (and quality) should increase. So maybe you're behind your peers and maybe you're not, it's impossible for us to say.

If your supervisor says your progress is good then I think you need to accept this at face value. If you're still concerned about it you should have a frank discussion about your concerns with your supervisor and/or another mentor in your field who can give you an unbiased view of your progress and prospects for an academic career.

5

I also work in a field where 8 to 10 first-authored papers are not unheard of for PhD students. This can be intimidating for early-phase students, as it feels like (and, objectively, often is the case) that the first paper is 2 years in the making. This makes it hard to imagine how one would end up with close to a double-digit number of papers by the end of a PhD.

However, one important observation is that paper production is not nearly the linear process you describe - students writing 10 papers in their PhD almost certainly don't generate a completely new hypothesis, generate completely new data, and write everything from scratch for every paper. Instead, they are probably working on an interesting family of related hypotheses, for which they collect a wide range of related data, about which they then write multiple related papers. Note that oftentimes the "costs" (in terms of time and effort) for collecting more related data is rather small in comparison of the fixed costs for starting to generate data at all (e.g., if you have all the measurement infrastructure in place, collecting data on some more types of subjects is much smaller than starting from scratch with a completely different setup). This model means that ultimately the student probably takes longer to produce the first paper, but is paid off when latter papers can re-use much of what has already been done. Most of my students publish little in the first years of their PhD, but get a seeming burst of outside-visible productivity after around the half-time point in their PhD. A nice side effect of this model is that one ends up with a clearer "story" for the PhD dissertation than if one just writes X completely independent papers.

Another question, of course, is how many of these 8 to 10 papers are actually full-blown original research papers. Again, speaking from my field, a subset of papers of PhD students are typically either more expository work (say, articles in scientific magazines which do not have the same level of expectation regarding novelty) or work-in-progress reports of some sort (e.g., published in academic workshops).

4

It's about problem selection. Doing laser studies of air sensitive compounds with a non-commercial laser, involves many ways the experiment can be derailed. Doing oxide phase diagrams is like taking candy from a baby. I'm not arguing which is better or worse for society or which is more fun. (Although I have an opinion.) But if you decide to do one of these butt hard topics and don't at least know the disadvantage, you are not a careful thinker.

-Cynical view but with insight.

P.s. And yes, real analysis, caveat-lovers, there could be other reasons (lack of effort, lack of skill, poor writing ability, etc.) But I want to emphasize the key issue for a researcher...there are always more things possible to try than time. You should have an independent assessment of that as a researcher. Yes, even with a very hierarchical advisor. It is easy to be passive aggressive and spend time on what you believe in and not what you don't. Your time on this earth is limited. Use it strategically.

3

Re: Struggling hard..

You're not alone. I am in the same situation. But it shouldn't disappoint you and you should never look down at yourself and your research. If you like your field of research, then that's the important thing, you will definitely reach a point that you have many publications.

Re: How do people produce so many work in such a short time?

In my experience, there are different reasons:

  1. They are continuing a research and they take different approaches to solve it.
  2. The papers are not sent to quality journals.
  3. They are based in a strong team that helps them.
  4. They are familiar with the tips and tricks of publishing in a specific journal.

Re: Publishing in short time

Unfortunately sometimes people are not very honest, so simply don't listen to them. Like so many things in life, stick to your idea and don't criticize yourself by comparing yourself with what other people claim. Also, when you want to publish, you can check the editorial process time; it can save you a lot of time (you can check my response here: How to find Elsevier journal-specific average publishing time).

Also make sure that you're sending your paper to the right journal. You can do this by reading the abstracts and conclusions in some of the articles in that journal.

Re: What am I doing wrong?

You are doing nothing wrong; like me, you are in a learning process. Publishing papers requires its own skills and we are both learning it. Nowadays there are some online courses that can teach you the skills. I haven't checked them myself, but we can get some ideas from them (e.g. https://www.udemy.com/publishing-in-impact-factor-journals-tips-and-tricks/)

Re: My adviser says my progress is good

My two journal papers during my PhD was rejected and I was so disappointed. But same as you, my supervisor liked my research and contribution. Since it wasn't mandatory for me to publish journal papers to get my PhD and I just had to submit my thesis for external examiners to review and comment, my supervisor asked me to focus only on my thesis. Now the thesis is finished, I have time to learn how to publish. Besides, I personally don't agree with 'Publish or Perish' idea. I didn't publish anything, but I managed to demonstrate that I like doing research and I have other skills. With that, I didn't get an academic job (with no publications), but I manged to stay at university for a part-time research assistant job, so I can have some time to learn and publish.

Last humble advice:

I'm reaching out to people and I talk about my research field and I'm asking if I can contribute in their articles; it will give me a chance to learn how to publish and also have my name as co-author. I hope it helps and I wish you all the best. Just don't give up :)

3

I completely agree with all the other answers, but one thing I would like to add is to start to publish your paper in a more narrow domain in your field, although it may not have as impact as other papers that are applicable to a wider domains, It will make some impact, and best of all, boost your confidence to take up writing better papers.

I am in a similar situation, although I am not a PhD, but a researcher in an industry, recently I published a paper limited to a very small domain in my field of work, it was just appreciated by a small group of people whom I know, but that was sufficient for me to get started.

1

Have you spoken to your PhD supervisor and colleagues about this? Maybe you need to help co-author and get regular mentorship and structure to help you get some papers out?

Sometimes contacting editors with publication ideas from your current work can be helpful. Editors are usually helpful and provide some practical and useful advice.

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