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I struggle with people, communication, and trust. I managed to publish a few papers as a PhD student (with the guidance of my PhD advisor, obviously), but since then I've failed to publish a single paper. It's been 4 years.

At this point, I'm fairly convinced that I'm a complete idiot, but now it's too late for me to change my career trajectory. That is, I need to publish in order to hold my current job (that of an assistant professor). I'm honestly clueless about how to accomplish that.

(For more context, my field is theoretical computer science.)

The problem is that I'm not smart enough to solve research-level problems on my own, and therefore I need collaborations to be able to publish anything. Now you could argue that I didn't belong in academia, and I'd wholeheartedly agree, except that it's too late for me to go do something else. (Let's just say, visa issues are also involved, in addition to my advanced age.)

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    You publish by doing publishable research and then writing it up and submitting it somewhere. If you want more specific advice, you should provide more detail as to what exactly you are struggling with and where being "unsocial" comes into the picture (perhaps initiating collaborations?). Jul 2, 2023 at 8:26
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    How many papers have you submitted and were rejected? Is the problem writing papers or getting them published (or even what research to do)? If you get papers rejected, you can try submitting them again to different journals, trying to find out what journals may fit them better. Obviously nobody here can assess the quality of what you're doing. But if you do quality stuff you should ultimately be able to get it published, if not necessarily at first attempt (I know what I'm talking about;-). Jul 2, 2023 at 10:15
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    My experience in mathematics is that people who can't solve problems on their own also don't contribute much to collaborations. Are you in a job where you can re-define downwards what is meant by "research-level problems"? There are plenty of write-only but still legitimate journals in areas of mathematics that could be sold as theoretical computer science publishing solutions to problems that are technically original but could be done by a decent undergraduate as a final project in a course - would that be good enough? Jul 2, 2023 at 14:05
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    @AlexanderWoo "write-only journals" -- that's a nice one :-) Jul 2, 2023 at 16:12
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    With all due respect, and without comment as to whether or not you should change career, you're like what, in your mid to late twenties? It's really not too late to change your career if you wanted to. Jul 3, 2023 at 18:10

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In addition to excellent comments above, I would also suggest that you be realistic. If your university has tenure requirements that includes number of publications as a criterion, you might have to face some serious choices soon. It might not be a bad idea to start looking for alternatives. There are many great teaching-focused schools where the criteria for success is not publications. If you go up for tenure in next year or two, start looking around.

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    I don't consider Teaching Focused schools as an alternative to research-university faculty career. It's basically a completely different profession. For instance, while the former suits introverted individuals who like to think, the latter suits people-persons who have good communication skills.
    – Dilworth
    Jul 3, 2023 at 12:53
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    @Dilworth But a person who is not publishing is not suited for a research-university faculty position. They need to change professions. For people with PhDs, the two most "obvious" kinds of positions are research positions and teaching positions. There are, of course, many other alternatives, but the advice to most doctors who are not suited for research is "Have you thought about teaching?" In any event, I think that the more salient point here is that the original asker should probably start looking for another line of work. The bit about teaching is, maybe, a throw away. Jul 3, 2023 at 14:51
  • @Dilworth I didn’t mean to apply Teaching job would be any easier one but given the visa situation mentioned there are potentially two alternatives: a research associate position in a university lab (which might require a strong publication record) or teaching heavy job which might require good student evals in the current job. My assumption here is that the person enjoys teaching and have received decent reviews. A third option might be full time lecturer in an R1 school but that usually requires industry experience
    – Anuj
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:06
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    @XanderHenderson, yes, I understand all that. I'm just contesting the assumption that the obvious choice for academics is either research-university positions or teaching-focused one. I think most academics, under the current environment, would be happier in any other job than teaching-focuses: industry, business, civil service, etc., while not in teaching-jobs. That's my opinion at least.
    – Dilworth
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:22
  • I do agree with you. Those choices are if his visa is not transferable to non academic agencies
    – Anuj
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:36
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There are a couple of false assumptions in your question. Let's start looking at them:

At this point, I'm fairly convinced that I'm a complete idiot

The world is full of idiots. However, not being able to keep on with research is not /equal to being an idiot, nor being a succesful researcher is a discriminant for idiotness.

but now it's too late for me to change my career trajectory

This is false, but you need to work a bit on this. Given your difficulties in other fields, you need to work on this, but I am fairly sure you need to work less to be "market-ready" than what you would need to be "academia-ready".

I'm not smart enough to solve research-level problems on my own, and therefore I need collaborations to be able to publish anything.

Here you face two problems:

  • reality check nr.1: many of the people that are succesful in publishing alone are simply cutting corners and exploiting other people's work. To use your language: they are idiots, but of the other kind of idiots;
  • reality check nr.2: a research collaboration works more as "independent people are somehow forced (not necessarily in a friendly way) to work together towards a common goal". It is very rare to have a real team-working style.

Then there is a hard question for you: most of the people on the planet Earth need a job to survive and are struggling to do so, either to just have a job or to get on with a badly paid, unstimulating job. Why cannot you give a try to the shitty side of life of not doing what you want to but what you need to?

You can sure recycle yourself in the private world, your field is very close to the needs of many industries, but you need to do all the efforts to understand what they want. You may lack the skills required to stay in the academia, but you surely do have the skills to get a job.

P.s.: if you are in the US, since you mention visa&co, please keep in mind that age is much less relevant than you think.

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    Nice answer. But I don't think "reality check nr.2" is correct.
    – Dilworth
    Jul 3, 2023 at 12:55
  • @Dilworth to go full-fame example, ask Rosalind Franklin theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/… or even ask hundreds of other co-authors what they think of the others co-authors ... the half full glass is that science content must be strong, for people to bear such heterogeneous personal opinions on each other.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 5, 2023 at 8:18
  • I simply think your claim "it is very rare to have a real team-working style" is factually wrong. I know many groups who work for decades as part of a collaborative team. Are they always on the same page? No. Are they close friends? Not necessarily. Does this mean that they "don't work as a collaborative team"? Nope.
    – Dilworth
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:30
  • @Dilworth I do not disagree, I wanted to stress that collaboration does not need so strong social skills. Team-working is quite different than "simply" collaboration, though.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:41
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There is a lot to unpack here. Let me see if I can suggest some options.

First, you may be suffering from Imposter Syndrome and are more competent than you give yourself credit for. You might be able to find a counselor to help with this. Earning a doctorate is usually proof enough of your ability.

Second, You may be working alone now and that alone makes research progress difficult. You need to find some collaborators to work with even if you don't publish joint papers. Discussions about technical issues can move your thought processes forward. One way to develop such relationships is to attend conferences and talk to people (see below). In the internet age, keeping in contact with people is pretty easy. At large research institutions this is less likely since there are often groups with similar interests. You might be able to form such a topic-oriented group if it doesn't exist. This is also helpful for doctoral students at your institution if they exist.

Third, you don't have to remain "unsocial". Social skills can be learned like any other, through practice. It may feel weird at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. I have a history of this and it came close to costing me a degree since I didn't speak up when it was necessary to do so and would have changed my trajectory. It took a long time, but few think of me as introverted any more. But it took recognition of the problem and its effects as well as (difficult) practice. Just. Do. It.

Fourth, depending on a few other things, it is possible to have a fulfilling career and a happy life without publishing. Teaching colleges (in the US especially) put a much higher emphasis on teaching and work with students than they do on advancing the state of the art. Any publishing is a bonus in such places, but not publishing doesn't normally hold people back. I've had excellent teachers who didn't publish. This is harder at a research institution, of course, where publishing is normally expected. So, you might be in the wrong position if it is teaching that you love above research.

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Is there a possibility to change the focus of your work from theoretical computer science to more applied problems? These kind of work then will not require strong mathematical skills, only some creativity and hard work to implement things. Yet, for this type of work you should be able to attract and collaborate with students, so some social skills are required.

Does your university have a psychologist/counselor that you can talk to regarding your concerns with your social skills. They might be able to provide more concrete solutions or even some sort of soft skills training.

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    You have a typo. It is "typo".
    – Bjonnfesk
    Jul 3, 2023 at 17:37
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At this point, I'm fairly convinced that I'm a complete idiot, but now it's too late for me to change my career trajectory. That is, I need to publish in order to hold my current job (that of an assistant professor). I'm honestly clueless about how to accomplish that.

Firstly, this sounds to me as a classical case of an Imposter syndrome, which is rather common in academia, where smart people are constantly in contact with many other smart or even smarter people. I am not going to play a psychologist to you, but you can read more about this and find easy proofs that your current position probably proves that you are far from being an "idiot".

On the other hand, sober evaluation of your perspectives and predispositions for academic career is in order. People do quit academia and find happy life, do outstanding contributions to science, and even return to academia at much higher level. All this is not visible, if you have spent all your life in Universities, talking to other people who have spent their lives in academia.

However, I would warn against thinking that getting a job in industry is a walk in a park, paved by dollars - it actually may turn to be quite a struggle, not easier than the struggles for positions, grants and awards in academia.

However, what might be easier for you personally, is that "in the open" your advancement would be less dependent on your communication abilities: finding collaborators, making friends with important people and grant managers, etc. (Provided that your communication abilities are good enough to answer questions in a job interview, avoid insulting your co-workers, etc.)

The problem is that I'm not smart enough to solve research-level problems on my own, and therefore I need collaborations to be able to publish anything. Now you could argue that I didn't belong in academia, and I'd wholeheartedly agree, except that it's too late for me to go do something else. (Let's just say, visa issues are also involved, in addition to my advanced age.)

It is never late to explore other opportunities, especially if the failure of your plan A seems more and more certain. Also, returning to your home country might be not as bad as you think after being away for several years - sure, life is not everywhere as comfortable and easy as in North America or Western Europe, but it is quite bearable in most places (and if it is really unbearable, then applying for a refugee status should be in the cards.) You may also consider going to a third country and relaunching your career elsewhere, perhaps in a less prestigious institution, but still...

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