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A close friend of mine is facing a hard situation in his microbiology PhD. His professor badly wants publications. The professor tells his students that each student should publish at least 2 papers each year (review papers, research papers, or 1 review and 1 research paper). For this reason, he pressures them to write review papers during an ongoing project's experimental work. When a project starts, he wants his students to start writing the manuscript, even before getting even any appreciable results. He always tells them to start writing the Introductions and Material and Methods sections. The students do this but when they get results that do not match their Introduction, they struggle to adjust their writing.

The hardest thing is that, due to his love for publishing papers, he gets small and short-term projects from Hospitals (some are not even related to his Lab but he puts the burden on his students to find ways to fulfill the work, even if it takes getting help from students of other departments where such projects would best fit). His students always struggle to produce a quality paper for a good Impact Factor journal due to a small sample number or the manuscripts being similar to the already published papers. They are rejected from journal to journal, only ending up in poor journals/free-journals

They always ask their professor to change his approach. But, my friend has been called lazy by this professor because he could not fulfill the 2 papers last year. He has not published any papers this year as well, but he keeps on jumping from one short-time hospital project to another. This has kept him too busy to concentrate on manuscript writing. The professor says that this approach is a form of training, his style of training his students, and fellow professors are bound to listen to him rather than his students' concerns.

I am worried about my friend, his mental health, and his academic future. What would you suggest my friend do, given that his visa status entirely depends on his academic status in this lab?

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    This isn’t what you ask about (so this is not an answer) but at least generally there is nothing wrong with writing down early the research. This is an important technique to reflect on the actions taken, and whether they are sound and convincing. In fact, for experiments done with a proper hypothesis, this should not require major revisions once the results arrive, even if they contradict the hypothesis (whether research is driven by hypothesis or exploration is field dependent, of course). Commented Apr 28 at 5:37
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    "When a project starts, he wants his students to start writing the manuscript, even before getting even any appreciable results. He always tells them to start writing the Introductions and Material and Methods sections" ---- This is absolutely the correct way to do things. You need to think through these things anyway before starting into experimental work, so the most reasonable way is to just write it out. Commented Apr 28 at 6:51
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    My advisor always counseled his students to start the writing process as early as possible. My brain doesn't work that way (I am a professional procrastinator) but that doesn't make his advice wrong. (He was, however, graceful enough to put up with me and not berate me for it.)
    – Anonymous
    Commented Apr 28 at 16:11

6 Answers 6

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This is an example of "publish-or-perish" gone berserk..I ask my students to write down what they are studying to make it easier at the end when they write their dissertation. However publishing is a different issue. In math the pace of publication is much slower, then papers are typically a lot longer than the results in lab sciences, and the authors are listed in alphabetical order. A student's first paper is typically a solo experience with only his/her name on it.

This pressure for publishing is not healthy. That is why the wave of news of distinguished researchers faking data to match the hypothesis.

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It might be helpful to look at the advisor's motivation. If they are untenured, they might be responding to feedback that they will be fired unless they do exactly what they are doing. In fact, I've heard assistant professors (especially in medical schools) advised to do exactly what that professor is doing, or they might get fired. Additionally, students that graduate from such groups are lined up for better postdocs and faculty positions themselves. However, this breaks down when faculty can't manage projects and students well, or if students don't "fit" that very specific mould.

The first suggestion is for the student to seek guidance from senior students or alumni to see if there's anything to change with their own approach. If students are succeeding within this model, try to find out how and emulate successful strategies.

However, it's also possible (if not likely) there is a bad fit between advisor and student. In that case, switching groups is common and the best course of action if possible. However, in their field, switching groups might not fix things if the field's expectations are to publish at that rate.

"Publish or Perish" is the reality many professors are in, especially untenured faculty. Faculty are often pushed by their fields, funding, colleagues, and their mentorship network to emphasize quantity over quality to avoid the "perish." I, personally, believe some take it to far and result in rushed, data mining correlation, minimal impact papers - but the consensus is that faculty are always better off publishing more.

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I think, broadly speaking, there are 4 main options.

  • Option 1: Continue to work with the current advisor, and learn to adapt to their expectations.

  • Option 2: Continue to work with the current advisor, and try to convince them to change their strategy.

  • Option 3: Continue doing a PhD, but change advisors, either at the same institution or by finding a new institution.

  • Option 4: Stop pursuing a PhD.

Option 1 is the clearest path to getting a PhD, but may not be tenable. I would say that a way to judge whether this option is worth considering is to look at how previous students in this lab have fared. Are there a lot who went on to achieve successful academic careers? Or did many fail to graduate or have difficulty finding jobs because of publishing low impact papers? If the lab has a track record of success, then I think whether to pursue Option 1 boils down to a personal decision about whether one can take the stress of suffering through poor working conditions for several years, with the hope that the career will get better once leaving this lab. I don't think a stranger on the internet is likely to be able to answer this; it will come down to a lot of reflection on what one's personal goals are and seeking out advice and maybe professional help. On the other hand, if the lab does not have a track record of success, then I think there's a clearer case not to pursue Option 1 because there's some evidence that the professor's practices may not set students up for a successful career.

Option 2 is probably not going to work, unfortunately. First, it sounds like it was already tried, and failed. Second, a PI's strategy for how to publish can be constrained my many factors not visible to a student, such as what funding is available. Third, because of the hierarchy between a PI and a student, there's not much a student can do to overrule a PI, if a PI chooses a path the student disagrees with. So it's worth having the conversation, but you don't want to damage your relationship with your advisor if you can avoid it because it is an important professional relationship, so if the PI is against changing paths then that is pretty much the end of the conversation.

Option 3 is something that happens relatively frequently. The main disadvantage is that you will lose the time spent developing expertise in the first lab, either pushing back your graduation date or meaning there's less time to finish your PhD, depending on the details. Also you may burn a bridge with your current advisor. It also may not be trivial to find an advisor; if you can't find one at your current institution, you may need to apply to more PhD programs, and then this will raise the awkward issue of whether to ask your advisor for a recommendation letter.

Option 4 is maybe the "nuclear option." Assuming your friend still wants a PhD, this would presumably only be an option if Options 1-3 failed. However, it is always worth considering that a PhD is a very challenging route even in the best circumstances and it's possible to have a happy and satisfying life without one. So, when making a major decision like this, it's worth revisiting the question of whether you want to spend the effort it takes to get one.

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Sorry if this sounds harsh, but what is it that has convinced your friend that they have a better grasp of research process and how to conduct one than a professor with many students and years of experience? They have become a professor for a reason: they know what they are doing. So, either adjust or find someone else to work with.

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I can't think of any field in which the state of knowledge is progressing at such a rate to warrant yearly literature reviews. And your friends clearly doesn't, which is why they keep getting rejected at quality journals.

This is a consequence of how academic research functions. But it's not good science. Reviews should be few and far between unless it's a new and rapidly evolving field.

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  • You're totally right about quality. This is something that happens at higher rates in medical schools and biological fields. Medical school fellows have only a year or two to produce, and biology is so competitive with an over supply of post docs.
    – sh314
    Commented Apr 29 at 11:14
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Yes, their advisor is a bad manager. However, the advisor's sentiment is right. You should be productive, and a good measure is that you are able to publish one journal paper a year no matter what. Often that means submitting two or three papers a year. If they said publish two, my guess is they've seen too many students only work enough to meet the minimum, which means submitting one ok paper ever year and praying that it somehow goes through. If you follow their advice on writing a paper in anticipation of worthwhile results to come, you would actually find it easier to meet the goals, even when the results never match the first draft.

Finally, it seems like the people in your friends lab are not taking ownership of the work. My read is that's all the PI wants. Stop behaving like children who hate being told what to do, and start doing what needs to be done without waiting to be told. Yes, it looks like you're working hard for your PI, but the great thing in academia is that you're also working for you when you take charge of it.

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  • Welcome! I think your answer has some good points, but I think people might be voting it down for the tone. We generally try to answer questions abstractly here (without judgement). So it's fair to point out the benefits of the professors' approach and encourage students to adjust their approach, but try to avoid belittling the students.
    – sh314
    Commented Apr 29 at 11:18
  • Thanks! Yeah, I hoped the harsher message gets through to a few readers. Would've helped me a long time ago! I suppose downvotes makes it less likely to be read, so I'll have to do better next time. Commented Apr 30 at 19:59

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