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I'm currently in the final semester of my engineering bachelors degree. Right now I'm working in a lab with the former supervisor of my bachelor thesis which I successfully defended in late march. My advisor encouraged me to work towards turning it into a conference paper and for the last three months I have been doing that and achieved decent progress. we agreed that I will get to be first author while my advisor is second and another PhD student who also helps is third.

Now overall the work has been enjoyable but the problem is that the sheer amount of work still needed to complete the project feels to much for me to handle at this point. The scope (which was mostly outlined by my advisor) is quite big and many tasks end up taking a lot longer than I (maybe naively) initially thought they would. Furthermore while my co-authors obviously advise me and help me out with certain tasks that I can't do I am still the one who does probably 80% of the actual work including the writing (in my thesis I was also quite independent compared to other students according to my supervisor).
I am talking to my co-authors about this of course and trying to distribute the workload but ultimately they have their own projects that have a higher priority and neither of them are prepared to really take over whole subtasks in the foreseeable future. I do not want to strain my relationship with them and they are both decent people and supportive mentors but at the same time I also feel like they are getting their co-authorships a little too 'cheap'. Then again this publication is much more useful for me than them so I don't have much I can do except ask nicely (I think).

All in all this means that even if I further increase my workload (which due to other commitments would become quite unhealthy for me) I am still looking at probably two months of work before we can submit a first draft. My advisor recently suggested me to push back the finish date and take more vacations now (he does care about me after all) but I'm also not entirely happy with that option. I'm starting my masters in late october and will have to take a regular courseload again then. Furthermore I want to get some tangible result sooner rather than later and at some point move on.

So the core problem is that the work is more than I can and want to do no matter if it is compressed into little time or stretched over a long time. I'm paid little and don't get credits for this so at some point the opportunity cost is just too high.

For the future I see the following options right now:

  1. Get my co-authors more involved and finish the full project on time.
    My favourite option but probably not realistic (due to the reasons above).
  2. Reduce the scope of the project to the point that I can finish in a reasonable time. The issue is that the hypothesis relies on testing a full system where removing some of its components compromises the usefulness of the results.
  3. Having me finish off the project as research internship in my masters.
    This would solve the lack of time problem in the coming semester as I will have to do a research internship anyways. However I originally wanted to explore a new topic and department in that internship instead of putting even more time into the current one.
  4. Find another co-author to help me.
    I would be totally open to collaborating with another person on this in exchange for co-authorship and in fact it might be quite enjoyable to work together. The big issue is though that the PhD students are all tied up in their own stuff while finding a fellow undergraduate who is motivated and competent might be impossible in the timespan of 1-2 months.
  5. Leave the project (perhaps not immediately) and hope someone else finishes it.
    I definitely do not want to do this but of course this still could happen at some point. Either I would have to completely write off the past few months or I could hope to still get some form of official recognition of all my work if someone ends up publishing something off of this eventually.

Right now I'm not sure what to do and I would appreciate some advice but also encouragement very much. I do realize that I'm ultimately responsible for the whole situation and that I should have probably figured out and clarified most of this sooner. In hindsight I was quite naive going into the project and too excited by the idea of publishing to critically think through it properly. Now, however, it is what it is and I want to make the best of the situation.

I would be especially interested in advice on how to turn the project into less of an all-or-nothing situation so that I'm not left without a tangible result if the publication fails for whatever reason.

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I am talking to my co-authors about this of course and trying to distribute the workload but ultimately they have their own projects that have a higher priority ... I also feel like they are getting their co-authorships a little too 'cheap'.

I'm not in engineering, but this setup sounds appropriate, that is, being co-authors while doing less work than you. It doesn't seem like they are doing "too little," if they are supervising your project.

I think you are wise to try to wrap this up before starting classes again, so I would suggest you go with

Reduce the scope of the project to the point that I can finish in a reasonable time. The issue is that the hypothesis relies on testing a full system where removing some of its components compromises the usefulness of the results.

I don't know what the details mean, but your advisor should be able to advise you on what a still-useful project would be.

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There is a lot to work through here. What your feeling is pretty normal. A lot of inexperienced researchers, especially undergrads, tend to underestimate how much effort goes into taking a paper from conception to publication.

On top of that, research takes time and it can be basically impossible to gauge the time/effort required for a project. Even experienced researchers sometimes underestimate the time it takes to run experiments (or do whatever is required for the paper). And often collaboration means waiting on other people who are almost always busy with other things. So the fact that your project is taking longer than expected is not unusual and not really even a bad thing - it's just a part of doing research.

I think, if you want to see this through (which you should) you need to adjust your mindset a bit. Right off the bat, divorce yourself from the idea that this project has a set timeline. If things are going slow and taking longer than expected, that's okay. If you're feeling overwhelmed or like you are doing too much work, step back a bit and take a break - you can always pick back up again. If you need help, ask your advisor. And remember that you don't have to work on only one thing at a time.

Often times, the key to publishing is persistence. This paper does not need to be the focus of your life but you also don't need to drop it completely. If you want to work on other things during your masters, do that and work on this on the side. But keep plugging along. If it takes a little longer (and takes a back seat to new projects) that isn't really an issue as long as you don't give up completely.

So I think the best way forward is to keep working on this until it's done. Just do what you're doing but be flexible.

Your other options are a bit misguided I think.

Get my co-authors more involved and finish the full project on time.

Your co-authors sound like they are doing what they should be doing - supporting your paper. There is no reason you can't ask them to do more, but it doesn't sound like they are doing too little. Ultimately, if this is your project, it's up to you to push it through. Don't worry too much about the timeline. If this is what you want though, be honest and direct. Tell them that you want this paper done and you need help.

Reduce the scope of the project to the point that I can finish in a reasonable time.

I don't think that this makes sense. From what you say, there is no reason to reduce the scope. The fact that you want to be done with the paper sooner is not really enough on its own.

Find another co-author to help me.

This would not be unreasonable in certain situations. However, you are early enough in your education/career that you should finish your own projects - don't try to shovel this off on someone else.

Leave the project (perhaps not immediately) and hope someone else finishes it.

This accomplishes nothing. Honestly, when someone "abandons" a project, 90% of the time it never gets finished. And again, don't try to shovel off your project on someone else.

Like I said earlier, you need to adjust your mindset a bit. This is not an "all-or-nothing situation". What you're experiencing is the research process (for better or worse). If you want to finish this project, finish it. There is nothing wrong with moving on - it's your choice. But you don't have to.

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    Thanks for this thorough answer! The reason for why I was so concerned with getting it done is that this was (initially) not supposed to last as long as it now will and I wanted to start my masters in the fall with a normal courseload. However I think I have now found a way to integrate it into my studies by turning the remaining work into a research internship (which actually counts towards my masters degree unlike the current work). So if that works out I will have solved the problem quite nicely I think :) Jul 23, 2023 at 13:36

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