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I am a 3rd year PhD student in Canada. My research area is different than my labmates. However, they are publishing high impact papers at high rate (2 per year), while I am struggling to get my second paper out. My first paper was in a low impact journal.

It is not only about the impact factor, their work is also more rigorous than what I am doing. Granted that my field of research is different (they work in modeling nanomaterials, while I work in simulation of a coating process), but I get super intimidated by their research output. My research area is not exactly aligned to my advisor's research expertise.

My seniors have gone on to become assistant professors in universities, in industry or are in prestigious research labs for their postdoc. They receive awards and accolades from the university and government, while I am struggling.

What should I do differently? I am working 80+ hours every week, but it seems I am not capable enough. My advisor seems satisfied with my work, but he is a hands-off kind of person, so I don't know if he even cares about my research output. Am I wasting my time with doing this PhD?

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    These may not be possible: 1) change supervisor. It is very important to have a supervisor that operates at a high level if you want to publish in high impact venues. Alternatively, find a co-supervisor who has a track record producing high quality publications, or 2) change area. E.g., I changed my area many years ago because it was easier to publish high impact papers if they are theoretical in nature. – Prof. Santa Claus May 4 at 9:46
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    Unless you work in a field where most of your work is not creative/not thinking-heavy, then I struggle to see how you could get much done while working 80+ hour weeks. Take a break. And read the book "Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less". – user2316602 May 4 at 11:21
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    Ah, thanks! In my own PhD work, I was offered a project that seemed perfect for me, only to find out too late that a previous grad student, a truly excellent fellow (3 years of NSF fellowship, followed by a grad school fellowship, etc.) had failed on exactly the same project. It took him 8 years to earn that PhD. Seeing his lab books later was a real eye opener. So I agree with some of the advice others have given here already: time to give this some hard thought. I wish you the best of success with this! (As for what I did, I followed the old advice: find a way or make one.) – Ed V May 4 at 12:24
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    2 high impact papers per year is not normal btw... – user2705196 May 4 at 12:36
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    The number of hours you are working is not helping, so why not wind that down? It will make your life more worth living. – Mark Rogers May 4 at 21:02
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If you're working 80+ hours a week, it's possible that that's getting in the way of you taking time to get enough sleep, and/or to maintain a healthy diet, and/or to get a decent amount of exercise, and that in turn is adversely affecting your cognitive function and impeding your ability to produce your best work. It might be worth trying taking your foot off the pedal a bit.

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    I can probably play video games for 80 hours a week, but after that, I'll be like a zombie and won't be able to do anything else, and have a completely messed up eating/sleeping cycles. I can't imagine doing 80 hours of productive PhD level work and stay remotely functional. – Nelson May 6 at 3:30
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    @Nelson It's also quite likely that the second half of those 80 hours of playing games won't be your most successful session either. – Voo May 6 at 12:37
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This is a bit of a subjective question: It is impossible to know if you're doing something wrong or what you should do differently without knowing your situation. However, as a PhD student myself, I can try to tackle some of the points you brought up:

My research area is different than my labmates.

I don't know how it is on the materials field, but in my field of research, some sub-fields are "easier" to publish (i.e. incremental results are worth publishing), whereas others require more tests or practical results.

I get super intimidated by their research output.

Do not forget that the grass is always greener on the other side! I work in a lab full of brilliant PhD students and it took me some therapy to stop comparing my work to theirs. My productivity even improved once I stopped looking outside and focused on my own work.

This kind of feeling is very common during this period of your life. A lot of PhD students suffer from Impostor Syndrome, for example. I strongly advise you to seek psychological help.

What should I do differently? I am working 80+ hours every week

If you're working hard, obtaining results and your supervisor is satisfied, perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with your work. Trying to measure yourself by someone else's ruler often leads to feeling burnout about your research, and I personally know people that have abandoned their field of interest because of a similar problem.

My advisor seems satisfactory with my work, but he is a hands-off kind of person

It is important to trust the judgement of your PI. Moreover, the goal of a PhD shouldn't be to obtain accolades and publish on the best journals. A PhD is more about you becoming a better researcher, while making significant contributions to your field. Sometimes what is significant for a given field is 'less shiny' than for others.

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    Add that some kind of papers can be just in the right time and the answer is the best we can offer (in my opinion, of course). – Alchimista May 4 at 10:16
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    "It is important to trust the judgement of your PI" needs some qualification - it's a useful default, but there are advisors that fail in their duties to their PhD students, and perhaps seem hands-off just because they don't care, so one might need to get a second opinion. – Peteris May 5 at 3:23
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I'll address this very specifically, since you've mentioned enough details and I'm familiar with the field. The other answers are well-meaning, but somewhat questionable, since a lot of this is wildly field-dependent.

@DanielHatton makes the primary point, that you may be sacrificing quality time to put in more hours. This is easy to fall into when you're primarily doing process simulation. This is primarily because of the steep learning curve, and because you can't easily validate what you're doing. It is highly likely that a large part of the time spent trying to set up the simulation is ultimately unproductive.

That's where a strong network is crucial for this kind of work. If you have been placed in this project without any prior work (eg. a previous model or a similar but rudimentary system), and if you don't have any prior background for this, the situation is rather grim. I would go far enough to call it irresponsible on the advisor's part, and to a lesser extent on yours for not doing due diligence. It is even more irregular considering that the other students are working on a topic that is presently extremely easy to publish in (contrary to the comment viz. "2 high impact papers per year is not normal").

I strongly suggest conveying your current situation and predicament to your advisor at the earliest and prevailing upon them to add some experimental component that is less uncertain. The grass may be greener, and you may indeed be too critical on yourself; notwithstanding, your situation requires urgent attention.

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    This is potentially a high value answer given its degree of specificness (is that a word? specificity instead is a statistical term..) – WestCoastProjects May 6 at 2:19
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    @StephenBoesch I believe "specificity" is a valid word outside its statistical contextual meaning. Just like its brethren "sensitivity"... – Nuclear03020704 May 7 at 15:36
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I am a 3rd year PhD student

If you are a 3rd-year PhD student and still not entirely clear on how to conduct yourself in your research field with respect to expectations, impactful topics and so on - either your advisor is not doing their job or you are a bad listener. You should talk with your advisor ASAP.

their work is also more rigorous than what I am doing [...] My research area is not exactly aligned to my advisors research expertise.

Again, this sounds an awful lot like there's a problem of fit. Your advisor is not offering you the guidance and support you obviously need. You mention that they are more hands-off: this is fine if your students are capable of conducting independent research, less fine if they're struggling.

What should I do differently?

First of all, talk with your advisor and convey these concerns to them. They may be satisfied because they think that you're a "late bloomer" that will produce good research; they may think that hearing negative feedback from them will make you feel bad, or just are generally averse to conflict; they may be used to working with more independent student and just don't know how to deal with you; they may not care about you as much as you think they do - what's one bad PhD student as compared to the string of superstars they've already produced?

Secondly, if you're working 80+ hours a week and not getting results it could be because you don't know how to make good use of your time (chasing inconsequential issues or lacking focus), or because you are not working on a good problem. The first part is your responsibility. The second part is a shared responsibility between you and your advisor: you should know whether you're working on a good problem.

Other good habits to pick up: write and document your (lack of) progress. This will make you more efficient (avoid repeating mistakes) and allows you to share your work with others more easily. Perhaps others could tell you how to do better. Secondly - get active: talk to others about your work, give seminar talks about the partial results you got, and get feedback from you peers.

Good luck!

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My answer is not focused on the academic, but on the working hours.

Working 80+ hours of mentally challenging work a week without a proper support network and proper mindset to keep you grounded will lead to burnout and extremely reduced output quite quickly.

It is really important for you to get a proper support network and working conditions, by which I mean a place to unwind from your research and not think about it and something to improve your mental hygiene.

After some time there is no other solution than to find some small goal, make sure everyone who needs to know knows you finished it and are going to be switching off for a small while - holidays YEAH - and TURN OFF!

After that, you need to make sure you:

  1. Have some small waypoint to work towards instead of just the large ones and manage your planning with enough time to work on it and COMMUNICATE with your colleagues/advisors in a timely and open manner about any bad and good events that have influence over them. It might require you to change advisors or find new co-advisors and change your workplace.

    • after you finish that REALLY small goal, celebrate it. Go to a nice dinner, drink a beer, do something to unwind, and enjoy your small victory. Take the rest of the day or the day after that as your day off.
  2. Establish proper and sustainable foundations. No man is an island and solving the large problems of your research in conjunction with all of the small things going on in your life will break your back. It was the last STRAW that broke the camel's back, not the fridge and wardrobe loaded before that.

    • it's really important to work with the people around you. Find a psychologist to whom you can tell anything that comes to mind. Find a friend who you can tell the same. If you live with your family or with a significant other, make time to be with them and make sure they have time to be with you.
  3. Strive to find something that will allow you to SWITCH OFF and not think about work/research for some short time period (for example before sleep). Reading, watching stupid TV shows or going out with your friends, or working out for an hour in a gym and watching the nice ladies around you (in a non-perverse and respectful manner) or anything else that "floats your boat" will work for that.

  4. Reduce your working hours. Working 80+ hours a week might seem like a good idea but it is just exacerbating the problem since you're probably just forcing yourself deeper into the hole. It's like thinking that the answer to not having enough speed/power output on a redlined motor is to keep in in the redline for longer. It might work for a short while but long periods of over-revving will just destroy it.

  5. Oh, and small victories. If the only thing in your life is this big research project you're doing, which is going badly, you're doing it wrong. Take your time to solve small problems that inconvenience your life and keep solving them periodically and take your enjoyment from work well done on them. Make sure you have fresh groceries and you make your laundry on time and try to enjoy those small things. The advice to eat well, sleep long and dress nice is old and cliche, but it won't hurt you. Au contraire. A lot of the work done on time is in proper preparation and part of that preparation is preparing yourself, as you are your own most important asset. It is hard to concentrate on some abstract mathematics if you're hungry, sleepy, stinky, and itchy since you didn't shower for three days. It will also have a compounding effect on your mental health. (unless you're suffering from something serious, and even then the routine might help, but you'll probably hear the same from a psychologist if you ever visit one).

  6. Read the answer by Spark and think about the possibility of some of it being true for your situation.

  7. Read the answer by Pseg and think about the possibility of some of it being true for your situation.

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Relax, rest, you are doing fine*. Don't damage yourself over the achievements of others.

Not every field is as productive as others. Even if they are close, the output potential could be vastly different. I work on multiple fields, some are easier to publish in respectable journals and in one, we are struggling to get anything published. You might be in the side topic that is difficult to publish. Now this could hamper your ability build your CV, but working on a field that is probably not very well developed has its benefits too. And you can always switch your topic once your PhD is over.

* I know this because your advisor said so. Trust your advisor, and if you are worried talk with him/her about it. Hands off advisors are generally more apt at judging students, otherwise they can't be in their positions.

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My answer is complementary to the answers given by others, so please take them into account too.

You mentioned that your colleagues work in different fields. Did you ever compare your research output to others within your own specialization?

  • In what journals do other scientists in your field publish? Is it common for your field to get into high impact journals? Or an exception?

Sadly, whether it is easy or common to get into high impact journals depends a lot on the field of research and whether your article produces enough hype. For example, I believe that many of the most impressive intellectual achievements are generated within mathematical physics. But long documents full of complicated equations for abstract problems are simply not interesting for most researchers.

This may or may not affect the fields you mentioned. Nanomaterials is a word I heard a lot over the years, while coating is not. But this may be just because of my own background.

  • Read papers from your field!

If you have no expert in your field to discuss with, then it is even more important to read lots of papers in your field and learn from them. What do people in your field care about? How do they organize the content of the paper, the introduction? What are their scientific methods? How elaborate do they explain the results and their methods?

  • How many papers do other graduate students of your field publish?

Again, the output frequency of papers can depend a lot on your field. For example, I know of experimentalists who spend their entire PhD studies just setting up and performing one really difficult experiment, and then only publish one or two papers about that experiment. However, it is common that these papers go straight to Nature or Science.

  • What methods and workflows are you using? Can they be adapted to different problems without restarting from scratch?

Here, I am not sure with what methods you are working. You mentioned labmates, but then you say you work in simulation of coating processes.

In case you work in simulation, you probably spent a lot of time learning a particular programming language or simulation framework. And in particular developing workflows and concepts for how to input a physical scenario and produce predictions. Can you adapt your knowledge to other but related problems?

My impression about computational/numerical fields is that it is quite difficult to get started. Because computers, in particular programming languages, can be very specific and yet cryptic about how they want their inputs and about what their outputs means. However, once people have figured out the framework or programming language and have written enough code they know how to reuse, the field turns into a paper machine for them. Just change the differential equations, the initial conditions, and you have something new to publish.

Do your labmates also work in something related to simulation? Did they begin their studies earlier than you? If so, it might be possible that they are already in the "paper machine"-phase, while you are not.

  • Try to get in touch with other groups in your field.

This is in general a good idea and referred to as networking. But in your case, since you doubt the expertise of your advisor, it might be even more important. Under normal circumstances, conferences would be a great opportunity for this. But with the pandemic, emails will have to suffice for a while. In general, group leaders are extremely busy, but graduate students or postdocs are usually happy if anyone shows interest in their work at all. So this might be a good conversation starter. And in the process, you might reflect in more detail about their work and might learn from it. You might also ask your advisor to write the first emails. A group leader is less likely to get ignored. Perhaps you could invite these other experts in your field to give a presentation to your group or institute?

Important goals of this "networking" would be to find opportunities for collaborations within your field, and learn the way of thinking, tricks, shortcuts and methods that are typical within your field. And learn what topics other groups care about. If you try to become an expert in a field on your own without speaking to other experts, you end up losing a lot of time. And despite this, you might remain insecure because you never get feedback from someone who knows whether your things are right or wrong. Guidance by experts is extremely important. You need to understand the intuitions, interests, methods and workflows of others in your field. And often times, papers do not convey such things in a way that is elaborate enough for you to actually apply them.

From my own experience, my guess is that you invest a lot of your 80+ hours per week into proof-reading and checking your work. I expect this because you have nobody to evaluate the details and correctness of your work. This costs a lot of time, often more than doing the work itself. And even then you may remain insecure and full of doubt. It is extremely important to have other experts you trust who can judge the correctness of your work. But for that, you first have to get in contact with such experts.

  • How much time do you have left? How can you make the most of your time?

You mentioned that you live in Canada. As far as I know, a typical PhD in Canada takes 4 years, of which the first is a year completely dedicated to mandatory courses/lectures.

It is quite common that graduate students output half of their papers or more within the last year of their PhD. That is because before they spend a lot of time learning the methods and actually producing results. And then they have to think about how to split them up into papers and actually publish them.

A general rule of thumb is that it is better to have several papers, each of them with a clear message and one focus result, instead of trying to squeeze everything you did in years into one paper. Many people only read abstracts or skim through papers in a minute or two. So if a paper contains too many different results or concepts, they might end up not knowing what the paper is about. And in particular editors of high impact journals want that the achievements of your paper can be summarized with one clear, short statement.

  • Present your research at conferences in your field and in seminars of other groups of your field!

While high impact journals are important for getting positions and grants, usually this is not how people get to know your name and your research. With the inflation of papers in academia, you might need additional ways to get attention. Apply to give presentations at conferences! In particular now that traveling is impossible for most people anyway, you might be able to give presentations from the comfort of your home without having to worry about travel arrangements and funds. When contacting other groups, you might also offer to give a presentation. Often, groups have group seminars, but people are too busy to ask for presentations. So if you contact them and remain flexible with respect to their schedule, they just have to write an announcement email to their group internal mailing list.

  • Don't worry too much about awards.

You can only do your best. And awards usually involve a lot of politics and personal opinions. There is no objective measure of what makes a paper the best, or a research result the most important. If people don't know you, they won't consider you for awards. So also here the contact to other experts in your field can help. Also you should be aware that you have to apply for many awards, while for many other awards your department or advisor has to do the application for you. If you want awards, you should look for awards, apply to them, or tell your advisor/department that you would be interested in trying to get this award. Unless you explicitly contact people, people just try to avoid bureaucracy as much as possible.

  • Is it an option to switch to your advisor's field of expertise

How much time do you have left? How different is your advisor's field from your own? Are the methods you learned and workflows you implemented useful to work in your advisor's field? For this it is important to discuss with your advisor.

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Between PhDs and faculty positions there are often one or more postdoctoral positions, so if you decide to continue in research, you might think about what kind of postdoc you are looking for based on your experience (eg work in a hot field or in a group that publishes a lot).

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