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I am working towards my PhD for 2.5 years now. A few of the students who joined after me under my advisor have recently published in top-tier conferences. Though I have worked pretty closely with them and mostly have been involved in troubleshooting their problems while they were conducting experiments or studying for those papers.

I am very happy for them and have nothing against them, but when I see that I don't have a single publication to my name, I get a bit depressed. Earlier, this used to give me motivation and my killer instinct just made me work harder. But as the time has passed, I feel demotivated. My advisor still considers me amongst his best students. Mostly, I didn't publish my work till now because I didn't find it doing justification to my expectations. And I wanted to send it to a top-tier journal which would require extensive evaluation and mathematical rigor, which I am still working upon.

Is it common to be intimidated by such such situations and what is the best way to overcome the feeling that you haven't done anything.

Note:

  • I have a lot work but unable to overcome this feeling when every few months, someone gets a paper accepted to a conference.

  • I am reluctant in sending papers to conferences since I am a self sponsored student and also not full time. So I want to utilize the funds available to me judiciously. The conferences won't fund me since there's a rider of being a full time student.

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    Why do you think you're intimidated? Does it have something to do with ego? From an absolute perspective, you don't seem to think you're a bad student, and you say that your advisor thinks highly of you. So does it have to do more with comparing yourself to others?
    – Potato
    Apr 30, 2015 at 5:58
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    @Potato I think yes, I am comparing myself.
    – krammer
    Apr 30, 2015 at 6:18
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    You sound like a perfectionist. You might not be aware that perfectionism can be a problem, and it's an endemic one among researchers — it's a common obstacle to getting a PhD. Apr 30, 2015 at 18:28
  • @Blaisorblade It's not endemic, but it's surely common. May 8, 2015 at 19:04
  • @PiotrMigdal Thanks, I'll stop misusing endemic to mean just common. May 9, 2015 at 18:29

3 Answers 3

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First off: if you are not a full time student, it's natural that you will take longer than others (who I presume are full time students). Don't feel too pressured by this.

Second, if you are involved with your colleagues' papers, should you be a coauthor on them? Especially if this took time you would otherwise have spent on your own projects?

Most importantly, have you discussed your specific problem with your advisor? It appears like getting a publication accepted would be helpful to your peace of mind. Your question has a faint whiff of perfectionism, which may prevent you from submitting and publishing. Your advisor would be the logical person to discuss this with. He should have a good understanding of the expectations in your specific field. If he considers you one of his best students, this is a good starting point!

I would recommend that you write your advisor an email along these lines:

Recently, some other students in our group got accepted in upper tier conferences. I am extremely happy for them, and this motivates me immensely to follow their lead. I would like to get something accepted in a comparable venue soon. However, I feel unsure of what level of quality is sufficient for publication - at what point do I stop polishing and submit?

Could we have a meeting in which we discuss some of my current projects and work out what I still need to do to get a manuscript into submittable form, ideally with a time plan? Thank you!

Finally, I assume you have already read and taken to heart this canonical question, right?

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  • thanks. My advisor suggested me to keep publishing in the conferences since I am involved in a lot of cross domain intellectual activities. The primary work may go in a journal. It relieves me a bit. The only thing now I have to discuss is the funding :)
    – krammer
    May 1, 2015 at 3:24
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I assume you are in computer science, since you are talking about top-tier conferences. So, I am going to talk from a pure CS perspective, since in CS in order to get a PHD you need to have publications.

First of all, do not let your ego get in the way of you getting a PHD. For getting a CS PHD, you need a critical mass of good and solid publications. That means a sufficient number (not just one) of good to excellent papers. According to the CORE conference ranking:

Conferences are assigned to one of the following categories:

 - A* - flagship conference, a leading venue in a discipline area 
 - A  - excellent conference, and highly respected in a discipline area 
 - B  - good conference, and well regarded in a discipline area 
 - C  - other ranked conference venues that meet minimum standards

I know many people who took a CS PHD and went to successful careers afterward that during the duration of their PHD did not have any A* conference publication. Instead they had 1-2 A publications, a couple of Bs and some additional workshop / demo / poster publications. IMHO this is the most realistic plan for actually getting a good CS PHD and get it relatively fast. So, although it is good to aim high, you should know that getting an A* conference publication (VLDB, SIGMOD, FOCS, SODA) is not simply possible for all CS PHD students (and certainly not necessary) during their PHD duration.

In this sense, aiming for that one perfect publication that would take 4 years to write is counter-productive for you, because:

  • If it gets rejected you start from null
  • It is not enough to get you a PHD, because you cannot have a CS PHD thesis of 30 pages
  • Everyone will assume that it is your supervisor's doing if you cannot follow through with equally good publications
  • If you are Mr. Nobody in single-bind conferences, it will be harder for your work to be accepted initially, since nobody knows you or trusts you
  • It is very difficult to do so, because writing a paper of this magnitude needs experience and this kind of experience can come only after writing many good papers and many rejection / resubmission circles for mere mortals like us (unless you are Terens Tao)
  • If the paper is that good, it really does not make that difference where it was submitted. I know seminal papers presented in B-conferences with 300 - 1000 citations and papers in A* conference that nobody cites.

Also, your plan of sending to a journal is even worse, since it might take a year before it gets accepted and in the meantime many other people could catch up with you. And even if you did write this excellent paper, it will take some time for that publication to take off and be known and until then what? You will have finished a PHD with a citation number of less than 10. This is also bad on all counts.

On the other hand, putting out consistently good-solid publications in respectable A or B conferences on a frequency of 1-2 papers per year, means that in 3-5 years of your PHD, you may have 4-8 good publications and:

  • People will know you for you (and not your supervisor) because you have proven yourself consistently by producing good papers on regular intervals
  • You will have gained better experience on how to actually write good papers and sell your ideas better
  • You will have a better citation index, due to your citing your work and other people citing it because the related community knows and respects you
  • You will get review requests that will inform you faster on the current state-of-the-art
  • You will find faster external collaborators which means even more good papers for you.

In a nutshell, my advice is: If your work has produced good-solid results, wrap it up and publish it, instead of aiming for perfection. Once your first work is out, everything else will be on its way.

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    I'd like to add that top-level journals in CS tend to count less than top-level conferences (it's certainly so in programming languages, and I don't know CS fields which are exceptions) — so usually, you submit to journals extended and improved version of conference results. Apr 30, 2015 at 18:30
  • thanks for core rankings. And listing out the specific points to shape my thought process
    – krammer
    May 1, 2015 at 3:21
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As other have mentioned, you sound like a perfectionist. This probably won't surprise you.

You might not be aware that perfectionism can be a problem, and it's an endemic one among researchers — it's a common obstacle to getting a PhD. The pattern matches your description: you set yourself excessively high standards, you miss them so they make your life worse, yet you keep attached to those standards, and ultimately you achieve worse results, both for motivations problems, and because you for instance self-censor your work, or work too much, or both.

I've had the same problem, and I've been recommended reading this self-help material. Of course, it's up to you to decide whether you recognize yourself in this pattern. http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/infopax.cfm?Info_ID=52

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