While reading certain papers, I come across great ones, presenting truly new findings, and not re-inventing the wheel or doing minor changes to other works. I seriously find it hard to believe that students who have not been in the field for so long to come up with such great ideas.

How come some people in grad school come up with groundbreaking ideas worthy to be published in top tier journals?

  • How do you know how long they're studying the field? PhD can take up to 5 or more years which is a long time
    – Yanko
    Aug 19, 2019 at 19:36
  • 3
    Some people are star athletes in school, others are not - why? Some people are great saxophonists in school, others are not - why?
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 19, 2019 at 21:04
  • I do not see the contradiction. If there is a strong team (advisor, other PhD students, ...), then good ideas are often developed together. Many good PhD students might have research experience even before starting their PhDs. It is not uncommon for my colleagues to have a few publications when they start here.
    – J-Kun
    Aug 19, 2019 at 21:54
  • I think a more interesting question is, of those who "have great ideas in graduate school", how come some don't continue to have great ideas. This would certainly be a small portion of those who had great ideas in graduate school, but nonetheless my question pertains to those people. (Not intended as a serious question here, by the way, only what I think avoids the obvious issue pointed out by @Jon Custer.) Aug 20, 2019 at 10:15
  • 1
    Some people ask questions that get upvoted, some people do not. That's just how life is.
    – user111955
    Aug 21, 2019 at 21:20

1 Answer 1


Some of it is being in the right place at the right time. A field has advanced to a certain state that some key insight is "ripe" for exploration.

Some of it is luck. Things just "come together" for the student.

Some of it is great advising, and some of it is being at a university in which there is a lot of intellectual discussion going on.

But research, and the great results, isn't something that can be scheduled and necessarily builds up incrementally. It takes insight, Eureka, that most trained researchers are capable of, given the right environment.

Finally some of it is just that the great work is recognized after the fact as others find it useful.

Note that my perspective is mathematics and computer science.

My daughter's dissertation was a "great work" in philosophy because she had the chutzpah to take on and refute a certain conventional wisdom held by the "great men" of the time. Risky, that.

But the riskiest path of all is to try to solve some classic unsolved dilemma that has been worked over by a generation or two of researchers. Getting a "win" there is partly magic, as the existing papers don't seem to get very close to a solution. New researchers are normally advised to avoid putting too much work into such problems until they have an established position in which failure to finish isn't devastating.

  • I could not ask for a better answer. I appreciate the first 3 points you made. I also thought the same by the way. Meanwhile, I find the fourth point you made quite interesting. Specifically the part about trained researchers being capable of having the "Eureka" thing. How do they get trained though to have these these insights?
    – Ronnie
    Aug 21, 2019 at 18:13

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