I've been looking up some PhD students' websites, and there are people who somehow got 10~30+ total papers with 5~10+ first author papers. Many such students are in computer science, but there are a few in fields like bioinformatics. Some garnered 100+ citations before graduation.

How did they do this? This makes me uneasy about my chances for a tenure track position in the future. I just finished my 3rd PhD year at a decent US institution. My field is closely related to bioinformatics, and I am aiming for a tenure track position in a similar field. But if my top competitors are of such caliber (10+ papers 100+ citations), I'm guessing my chances are slim.

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    It's not clear to me that this line of inquiry is going to be all that productive. I understand that as a PhD student that will be on the job market in a couple of years it's completely natural to search for the accomplishments you'll need in order to guarantee that your job search will be successful. But the truth is that there's so much random luck and timing in the process that no such criteria really exist. All you can do is work as hard as you can and hope for the best. Good luck.
    – user109454
    Aug 11, 2019 at 21:41
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    1. Figure out what job you want to get. 2. Examine the record of people who have that job. 3. Do better than they did. This is different from what you have been doing. Many PhD students never apply for tenure track jobs, and many of the applicants have not been PhD students for some time (this varies by field). Aug 12, 2019 at 0:48
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    I can guarantee you, that a high number of papers and/or citation still doesn't guarantee a faculty position (personal experience).
    – Bas Jansen
    Aug 12, 2019 at 10:09
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    @BasJansen The relevant question here is not if good metrics guarantee a faculty position, but if someone with less-than-stellar metrics still has a chance to get a faculty position. Aug 12, 2019 at 10:20
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    @BasJansen OK, that was not clear from your comment. Aug 12, 2019 at 10:30

8 Answers 8


I think at least part of the answer lies in different cultures across fields. I did my PhD in computer science/artificial intelligence. There a huge focus is on conference papers which tend to be smaller contributions. Often incremental progress on a single project is reported in multiple conference papers and it was expected that a paper corresponds to several months worth of work. Frequently you would publish in a conference and then have an extended version appear in a journal. All in all, 5 first-author papers upon PhD was not exceptional. Also we had a lot of within-group collaboration so I got to e.g. run a few statistical routines on someone else's data, help write the manuscript and become a coauthor for about a week of work. I ended my PhD with 23 publications, 8 of which were first-author - this was above average in my group, but not exceptional.

Now I do bioinformatics and collaborate a lot with biologists. Their papers are usually longer and for any result you need a lot of tedious manual work in the lab. In turn, the papers represent years worth of work. Many people - even brilliant ones - end their PhD with 1-3 first-author publications. I've heard in some areas, publications are even harder to come by. In other words, the number of publications is not a very good proxy for brilliance, especially when you are ignoring quality and comparing across fields.

As for the 100+ citations - my best bet (since you mention bioinformatics) is that this is because the students co-authored some software/tool/protocol that ended up being useful => cited. (tool papers tend to be the most cited ones). This is obviously a success, but once again does not necessarily imply that failing to produce useful tools is a sign of non-brilliance.

Example: DeSeq2 software for comparing gene expression across samples has > 10 000 citations on Google scholar while the first detection of gravitational waves has just above 6 000 citations on Google Scholar.

Also me and some of my colleagus have landed reasonable jobs with roughly 0 citations (excluding self).

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    My son has just completed a PhD in Electronics Engineering in the UK. He has one paper from his PhD (which was first author), and a second from his MRes course before he started the PhD. He has got a position as a Research Assistant to continue working on his PhD topic. Aug 12, 2019 at 11:56
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    The gravitational wave paper is from 2016, the DeSeq2 paper is from 2014. In both cases this is about 2k citations/year. Aug 12, 2019 at 12:05
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    @ZeroTheHero maybe it is not the best example, although I guess it is obvious that a (well done and useful) simple software is a very different league than a breakthrough in physics. But also note that counting only citations since 2018, DeSeq has 6740 while gravitational waves have 2810, so if anything, the DeSeq paper is accelerating :-) Aug 12, 2019 at 12:21

First, that's not a useful question to ask, primarily because it's nothing you can control in any reasonable way.

Second, just because some graduate students have somehow come up with such statistics does not imply that your average competitor has. It's a bit similar to the average physicist not having published three papers at the age of 27 all of which could have gotten a Nobel Prize on their own -- even though Einstein did. You will always have people who are far better than everyone else, and they will likely get positions somewhere, but they're not going to fill all available positions.

Finally, publications are just one measure search committees use to determine who to hire. There are many questions on this forum that discuss the many many other criteria used, so I won't repeat them, but you might want to read through these other posts to see that publications are really just one of many criteria.

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    "First, that's not a useful question to ask, primarily because it's nothing you can control in any reasonable way" At least one can surely control the probability of attracting more citations, specifically, by focusing on a "hot" PhD topic. That is not to say that such approach is definitely the most desirable. Aug 12, 2019 at 9:19
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    It is still a useful question to ask even if you can not do anything about it. High school basketball stars should consider that their chances at an NBA career are basically zero and plan for a future outside the NBA. PhD students should make a realistic assessment of their chances of an academic career and plan accordingly.
    – emory
    Aug 12, 2019 at 12:20
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    All fair comments, though of course I meant to imply that you can't control others writing this many papers. Aug 12, 2019 at 12:48
  • Then it's still a useful question to ask: possibly one can use the answers to improve one's own productivity and impact. Aug 12, 2019 at 12:52
  • Well, I guess that too is a fair comment :-) Aug 12, 2019 at 23:14

As someone who got 6 publications during their PhD - it's often because they are of low quality. I (wrongly) placed a large focus on quantity over quality and it resulted in a rather lacklustre thesis.

Some people are able to get large numbers of high-quality publications, but they are so much more rare than people who get large numbers of papers that will never be cited or even read by anyone of note.

It's good to have some publications - but it's better to ensure that the research you are doing is of value to the field!

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    It's good to have some publications - but it's better to ensure that the research you are doing is of value to the field - quotable quote!
    – user1995
    Aug 12, 2019 at 20:25
  • better this romanticized approach than publishing garbage
    – struct
    Aug 11, 2021 at 15:38

There are some institutions where there is common practice to put ones peers as co-authors even if they had nothing to do with it. On top of this, there are these "paper-producing factories" where the main objective is just to produce paper after paper.

I'm not saying that these individual geniuses with these citations honestly doesn't exist, but personally I'd be cautious about just accepting them right away as the truth and instead consider a bulk of them to be untruthful.


How did they do this?

One possible explanation is that people sometimes stumble over a vein of gold. You make a small breakthrough with a new idea that you can then expand in different directions, apply it to and combine it with other phenomena, often in collaboration with experts for those phenomena.

The obvious follow-up question is to find such a vein of gold. Luck might be an important component here, but a good intuition might play a role as well -- sometimes, the intuition of the involved advisor and collaborators. For the collaboration aspect, an advisor with a strong network, as well as good networking skills of the PhD student can help.


Citations are not always the best of indicators. In my post-doc position I was co-author on a paper that had a "whacky new" idea. We didn't really develop it too much. We just said "hey, you can use this thing here to solve that problem over there, isn't that interesting?"

So this has resulted in a lot of people saying "yes, and if you tidy it (Reference [1]) this way and add this feature, you can get an interesting variation on it like so." Where [1] is the paper I was co-author on. Some thousands of papers have done some such thing. And I was alphabetically the first author. Though I was quite clearly the least contributor.

So I technically have an excellent citations stat. But I left academe after my post-doc, and barely remember doing this work. So I'm absolutely not good material for being a prof. Both my co-authors have distinguished careers. But they were both established before this paper.


This is highly dependent on your research topic, publishing culture, and local standards. I will try to answer from personal experience.

As a PhD student I have published 15 papers. Roughly the same amount of manuscripts came from work developed during PhD, while others derived of work done as an undergrad and Master student. All of which were published in reputed peer-reviewed journals, though mostly low-tier journals. This is how I achieved this: (i) passionate about research; (ii) passionate about writing and editing papers; (iii) some equally passionate co-authors; (iv) working like crazy; (v) being stubborn like a mule; (vi) prioritising descriptive reports within a small research niche; (vii) getting completed work published. I had finished my PhD with roughly 60 citations. I don't think I have a good citation record nowadays, but I have published many papers.

Did that help me in my career? Sure it did. Academia is hungry for publication counts almost everywhere, and prospective postdoc supervisors assume you'll earn them at least that. Most PIs are scared of unfinished projects, and depression-stuck collaborators.

However, how such numbers are seen varies between different academic cultures. Therefore I cannot say whether I'd specifically recommend this path to anyone. You wouldn't believe the stress (and politics) involved in pushing things forwards, especially if you work with rather laid-back mates.

The key point to keep in mind is: how can you show value? Focus on that.


There are some topics which are inherently good for publications and citations. If you need a specific dataset for your study, this is quite often very difficult to build up. So if one does the work, a lot of people will use and cite your dataset. Even more so, if there are only limited ways to gather such a dataset, especially if you need patients with a specific disease or something like that. In these cases the academia is happy for any dataset they can have, and therefore it gets easily published.

If you look at the published papers, there will certainly be some paper on "here we made this dataset, feel free to use it and cite us", then after this comes the "we now evaluated this dataset with our methodology" sometimes followed by "with this methodolody we made this workflow and product" and so on. Sometimes accompanied with some more datasets, and then you have 10 publications in short time. Each of them building on a reputable and much cited dataset. So these paper gather good traction also.

I was at conferences where half the people just presented new datasets of gazes, pupils, fingerprints, smiles whatever. A lot of tedious work to build up, but it may be a good thing to build up reputation.

Sadly in the current times, reputation in numbers (citations, papers, etc) are sometimes regarded more worth then the content of these numbers.

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