I gave a departmental seminar yesterday. It was a short 20 minutes presentation of my PhD thesis. I had presented two of my published works during the seminar. My research topic was to model an experimental manufacturing techniques. I have published two papers (in decent journals) and will be submitting few more.

One of my departmental senior professors privately told me that I am doing too simple research as compared to my labmates.

I know that I am an underperformer in my group, but I never thought my research to be simple. Now, I am worried how my research will be perceived by prospective future advisors and faculties. My advisor says not to heed to the professors comments and that I have done a good job. However, deep down, I feel that the professor might have a fair point. I don't know what can I do now. I have already submitted my thesis and will be defending in couple of weeks, though that professor won't be in my committee.

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    this is the common case, how many PhD graduates become professors themselves?! Maybe you are also just in a very ambitious group. If you want to become a professor, then I would be concerned and see the private words of the professor as a "push" sign. If your goal is not more than the PhD, everythign is fine, isn't it? Nov 3 '19 at 12:39
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    Congratulations, your presentation made your research look simple, and your detractor simply forgot that "mastery makes art appear easy." Move on, and good luck.
    – bishop
    Nov 4 '19 at 5:18
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    @robert Given that you know what you are prone to, I suggest you think more positively. You cannot be an academic if you doubt yourself all the time. Criticisms, rejections, etc are all part of the job. This self doubt of yours will probably affect your future prospects more than your choice of research problems. Nov 4 '19 at 7:15
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    To quote Terry pratchett here: Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid. . Is your research simple or stupid? Galileo's ball-drop was simple but not stupid for example.
    – Borgh
    Nov 4 '19 at 8:39
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    Whenever someone tells you after a presentation that your work is simple, you may come back with "I take this as a great compliment to my presentation and summarizing skills, but the work itself is surely not simple". If the professor has an argument as to why this is simple (such as: "everything there is chapter 8 of book X", or "people in the industry have been doing this for 20 years"), that's another situation completely. Also note: Many problems and solutions seem simple once they're well stated and solved, but to properly formulate a problem and solve it from scratch may be a nightmare.
    – Mefitico
    Nov 4 '19 at 13:25

Perhaps the best route is to split the difference. Note the concern of one professor, but take heart from the support of your advisor. There are a lot of possible explanations.

Perhaps the professor making the comment is overlooking some aspects that are harder than they think. Some things that look easy from the outside are harder when you get into the details. And, perhaps, that professor is just so brilliant that the crux of your problem seems obvious to them. There are such people, of course.

Perhaps your current research really is simpler than that of others in their circle. But you are still early in the profession. You will probably do better work as you advance. The dissertation shouldn't be viewed as your life's best work, only the first.

There is no real reason to worry at this point, and certainly not to panic. But long term, consider the advice you were given. Perhaps a bit more experience will help you judge its merits or lack.

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    I liked @Borgh 's comment on the OP, and I will quote it here because you can never say it enough. To quote Terry pratchett here: Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid. . Is your research simple or stupid? Galileo's ball-drop was simple but not stupid for example. It may seem just a "me too" and add nothing to Buffy 's answer, but I think everyone should stress that Science doesn't have to be complicated.
    – Henrique
    Nov 6 '19 at 13:19

A single point of feedback says nothing about your future prospects. There are just too many possible sources of noise in the data. Maybe the professor had a paper rejected, or a scoop of his favorite ice cream dropped from the cone just before your talk. If the same feedback would arise repeatedly, that might be an issue.

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    Or maybe he got his degree from Curmudgeon State University.
    – Buffy
    Nov 3 '19 at 15:31

If you have published twice, presuming these are peer-reviewed journals, you probably have three reviewers and an editor on each paper that think your work is good enough to publish, and your own advisor. So consider the score 9 in favor, 1 against.

There is a real phenomenon in Academia, in which if you figure out a way to present something simply, from the outside some will say it is too obvious.

Well, presuming it is original and useful, if it really was so obvious, why didn't anybody do it before you? Perhaps it is only simple because you found a way to make it simple.

The mark of a PhD is to be able to make original contributions to the field, and most universities, in my experience, use peer-reviewed publications as the proof of having done that.

I say don't worry about it. I peer-review papers in my field, I've done six this year. I rejected four of them. Worry about that, people like me will reject work that is too obvious, simple, or common sense. But if it is original, I don't care if it is a simple idea, if it works then people should know about it. That is my criteria, I am NOT impressed by names (of individuals or institutions), I am NOT impressed by complexity or massive formulas, I am ONLY impressed by functionality and whether I think others in the field don't already know about what you are doing and should know about it. If you meet that criterion, I'll approve it.

I might have extensive revisions for you, but that is to help you get an important idea out there; I'm not going to bother writing a lot of corrections if I'm recommending rejection.

  • "if it really was so obvious, why didn't anybody do it before you?" well...hmm...because it's obvious?
    – toto
    Nov 6 '19 at 9:29
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    @toto If that were true, then their research wouldn't have been accepted by peer reviewers; as I thought I made clear in my post. Certainly not honest peer reviewers. And I said "original and useful", so if it were truly useful low-hanging fruit, we should have seen it published, referenced, or used implicitly near the beginning of the field; we should have seen it in a modern textbook on the subject; we should know other papers use it all the time.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 6 '19 at 10:45

Your job as a graduate student is to show that you are capable of doing research. It is the advisor's job to guide you in the choice of research topic. They themselves typically don't know in advance how difficult or easy this will be. If the topic is in fact easier than some of the topics that other students are researching, that is more of a (probably minor) failing of the advisor than it is a failure on your part.

Furthermore, it is your advisor's opinion that matters the most. They are the most important gate-keeper standing between you and the Ph.D., and they will write the most important letters of recommendation for you. If they are satisfied with your research, you don't have anything to worry about (though you probably shouldn't ask the other professor for a letter of recommendation).


Is it possible you're on the Autistic Spectrum? I did really poorly in the academic side of things due to my brain being wired differently and now that I am diagnosed, it greatly helps me understand why and opens doors for help in such areas as I excel at hands-on/practical things on a level way better than the average person. But explaining it still isn't easy.

For example, I was always good at maths in school and could fly through maths books but could never "show my working" and I'd explain things in more simplistic terms.

It's not uncommon for those of us on the spectrum to do poorly at Academics but excel in the field, and if you are, there's a lot of helpful resources available these days. (Especially if you're in the UK)

Until I got my diagnosis, I never thought much of myself or thought I would get anywhere and now I'm in a pretty good position.

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    It seems premature to assume the OP is on the spectrum, since the question doesn't say so.
    – YiFan
    Nov 4 '19 at 15:23
  • @YiFan Yes, sounds like something the OP would include in the question from the beginning.
    – beppe9000
    Nov 4 '19 at 20:38
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    @beppe9000, maybe the OP doesn't know enough about Autism to consider themselves on the spectrum. I hadn't even heard of it as anything other than "Rain Man"/"idiot savant" until about 10 years ago, so I'd lived around 30 years before realizing that might be part of my problem with a variety of aspects in my life. While this answer doesn't completely cover all aspects of the question, it's still a good frame challenge, IMO. Nov 4 '19 at 21:03

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