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I am an undergraduate student in STEM.

  • I have noticed that several of my peers (also in STEM) have published in journals or conferences (multiple times).
  • I have also seen that in online forums for graduate admissions (such as PhysicsGRE), almost all the profiles have published several times in conferences and journals (granted that profiles in online forums do not present a well-rounded view of undergraduate students).
  • Many of them are also first or second authors in their papers.

Has there really been an increase in papers co-authored by undergraduates? Does this mean that publishing a paper does not carry the same level of significance as it used to in graduate admissions?

I know I am being paranoid, but I am hoping to apply to graduate school and I feel under pressure to publish since it seems like there are so many who do this, and hence someone who has not published any of their research would not stand out to the admission committee. This pressure is at the back of my mind every time I am working on my research, and is preventing me from enjoying its process.

Of course, this could be confirmation bias and I tried to find statistical answers regarding this, but could not find any, so I am asking here, since several members here take part in the graduate admissions process.

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  • In what country are you planning to study? – Buffy May 9 at 12:37
  • @Buffy USA/Canada – justauser May 9 at 12:38
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    Well, I do not know if there has been such increase, but clearly there has been an increase in papers that look as if they are written by undergraduates. – Captain Emacs May 9 at 15:33
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  • Has there really been an increase in papers co-authored by undergraduates?

These facts can be established:

  1. There has been an increase in the number of undergraduates, except for recently in a few areas that have falling birth rates.
  2. There has been an increase in the number of papers published.
  3. The average number of authors per paper has increased.
  4. For most papers, it is impossible to tell if an undergraduate is an author without asking the authors.

On balance, I think that there has been an increase in papers authored or coauthored by undergraduates, but that it is impossible to tell how big that increase is because nobody is collecting the data.

This pressure is at the back of my mind every time I am working on my research, and is preventing me from enjoying its process.

As a PhD student in STEM, you will be assessed primarily on your research publications. If you particularly dislike being assessed that way, do not get a PhD in STEM.

Does this mean that publishing a paper does not carry the same level of significance as it used to in graduate admissions?

The number of PhD students is also increasing and admissions practices are slow to change, so I doubt there has been or will be much change.

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  • Thanks for the answer. "As a PhD student in STEM, you will be assessed primarily on your research publications. If you particularly dislike being assessed that way, do not get a PhD in STEM." I am an undergraduate student. I was talking about publications being assessed in graduate admissions. – justauser May 9 at 13:50
  • Yes, I gave you more advice than you asked for. – Anonymous Physicist May 10 at 5:00
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This answer is specific to the US. I think the Canadian system is a bit different.

It still seems relatively rare that undergraduates are able to publish significant research while enrolled in a US university. A few will, of course, but not so many due to the nature of the US curriculum, which is intended for a general education with only some specialization. Even in the major of a STEM degree the coverage tends to be broad rather than deep.

That isn't to say that US undergraduates don't do any research, but it is difficult to reach the "research edge" of specialization under the US system.

More important and more common in the evaluation of students with only a BS applying to doctoral programs is enthusiastic letters of recommendation from professors who have worked closely with candidates and can predict their success. You need a good GPA, and possibly good test scores as well, but, relatively speaking, letters are important.

Your Statement of Purpose is also important. It needs to show realizable goals as well as the seriousness to achieve them.

Any research, even if unpublished, such as a senior thesis, is a plus, but that should also lead to a good letter from the advisor.

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