Some background: I'm near 40, I have a PhD, I work as a computer scientist at a Very Large Company's R&D Lab, and I have about 35 reasonably non-embarassing publications to my name.

Writing papers is "encouraged" by my company, but it's not core to my job. My main job duties are managing projects and transferring R&D ideas into products, and I get paid a very nice 6-figure salary for this. Frankly, I'm one of only a few people here who care about writing papers, and recently I've only had enough time to submit to workshops and mid-tier conferences.

At what point should I just stop caring?

I keep saying to myself that once I reach 40 papers, I can stop.

  • 6
    Can you clarify your question? I don't understand what could constitute an answer: I don't see that you have any obligation to care about publishing, and it doesn't sound like it's an important part of your job, so what are you looking for from an answer? Encouragement to continue with research and publishing? Permission to quit? Comments on whether you have an ethical obligation to use your background and training to advance the state of the art? Speculation about potential future benefits of publishing (e.g., if you change jobs or want to move to a university)? – Anonymous Mathematician May 1 '14 at 3:02
  • 1
    The last three: Permission to quit (when can I stop caring with a clear conscience), do I have an ethical obligation to 'the research community', and speculation about potential future benefits. – stackoverflowuser2010 May 1 '14 at 3:16

You shouldn't feel any obligation to write papers if you don't want to and you aren't required to for your job. At this point, you've written 35 papers, which more than repays any investment the research community put into training and mentoring you. (This shouldn't be a concern in any case, but with so many papers you're extra safe on this count.)

It will be a loss for the community if you decide not to continue, but you shouldn't decide on that basis unless you anticipate world-changing outcomes from your future papers. Think of it from the perspective of someone reading one of those papers. How would they feel if they knew you had forced yourself to write it at the cost of personal unhappiness? If the paper leads to a cure for cancer, then they'd think you made the right decision, but for most papers they would probably feel sorry and wish you had chosen otherwise. If the potential audience for your papers would feel sympathetic, then you shouldn't hold yourself to a stricter standard of community service than they would. (I wouldn't assert the converse: you can legitimately quit even if the potential audience wouldn't feel sympathetic. However, they probably would, and that may make your decision feel easier.)

Of course, quitting research may close off future opportunities. If you'd like to move to a research university someday, or a more publication-focused industrial lab, then you'll need to maintain an active research program. (Having done compelling research in the past doesn't count for much if you haven't published recently, since potential employers will assume that your knowledge and skills are rusty and that your not publishing recently reflects a lack of ideas or enthusiasm.) Maybe research would be more fun in a supportive environment with coworkers who are also actively engaged in research. If that's the path you'd like to take, then you should keep doing research while you figure out what sorts of jobs might be feasible.

However, if you don't want to write papers now and you don't anticipate wanting to do so in the future, then it's perfectly fine to stop. You can quit with a clear conscience and be proud of the work you've done, without feeling any need to continue.

| improve this answer | |
  • Thanks for the great insight. Your statement "with so many papers, you're safe on this count" is interesting. I wonder what the minimum is. I also wonder if there some magic number we all have where we can feel satisfied with writing once we leave academia. I have put my foot down and said my magic number is 40. – stackoverflowuser2010 May 1 '14 at 22:02
  • I'm not sure. I think just about everyone who gets a Ph.D. should try to publish their dissertation work, but beyond that I'm not convinced there should be any sense of obligation. It's a personal matter of what feels like a satisfying research career. If 40 is what feels right to you, then that seems perfectly reasonable. In my own case, I can remember hitting 25 papers and feeling like I now had more than two dozen papers, which seemed like a solid and respectable threshold. I have not yet hit 100, but I expect that will seem numerologically significant if I reach that point. – Anonymous Mathematician May 1 '14 at 22:57
  • Numbers don't count, quality does. Goedel and Feynman are far below your number. If you have something to say, write the paper. If not, don't. – Captain Emacs Jul 26 '16 at 18:55

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.