Besides hard work, is there anything that one can try to be creative in research? On this site, is there a lot of people who can publish more than 5 or 10 papers per year? I would like ask them, if it is possible to train oneself to do that.

I have been a hardworking student. For four years, I have tried to publish one (first-author) paper per year, and I feel that this is my limit. This rate is enough for me to get a PhD, but it is never enough for survive in academia.

I'm going to start my postdoc in a couple of weeks, and I'm really worried, thinking about my career. I really love research, but I'm afraid I'm just a mediocre scientist, who will end up as a postdoc for 10 years (or forever).

  • 8
    In which field are you? One paper per year is quite a good rate in mathematics (one of my professor - a leader in his subfield - call it a "yearly miracle") for example.
    – Taladris
    Jun 21, 2015 at 1:22
  • @Taladris I'm working in Software Engineering
    – sean
    Jun 21, 2015 at 16:55
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    I'm confused by the use of the word "creative" in your post. Do you mean "productive" instead? The answer provided by @John below, I think, highlights this point of confusion.
    – Mad Jack
    Jun 21, 2015 at 17:51
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    In fact, after reading jakebeal's answer and the article mentioned in the answer I think the question may also be confusing between 'creativity' and 'impactful research'. In the latter case, it wil lead to a whole new series of answers.
    – John
    Jun 21, 2015 at 20:44
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    @John When I read the post, the main question I come away with is: I've reached my publications-per-year limit, how do I increase it? One can certainly "be creative" to boost that number, but I'm not certain this is what OP means (I could be wrong). Hopefully, OP will clarify.
    – Mad Jack
    Jun 21, 2015 at 21:54

3 Answers 3


I would like to suggest that you read the speech "You and Your Research" by Richard Hamming on how to do great research. It's one that I revisit every once in a while when my own scientific motivations are becoming unclear and need to be refreshed.

In reading it, it's important to keep in mind that the speech is thirty years old, and it is addressing things that happened even decades before that, so there are some jarring cultural gaps both with regards to science and with regards to the rest of society. Nevertheless, I find the central ideas to be still very relevant and valuable today.

Importantly, Hamming distinguishes between things that you need to do in order to not fail and things that you need to do in order to have a real impact. These are very different, and it is important to distinguish between them. Important research is not the same as any of the "productivity metrics," and the correlation is often a trailing indicator, not a leading indicator.

For example: you say you are concerned that you are publishing only one paper per year. Step back and ask: why am I concerned about this? You can publish lots of papers without ever doing anything really creative or important. You can have a full, tenured, and comfortable career that way. And honestly, that's an OK choice to make. Some people go too far the other way, and strike out so deep into their own creative world that they can never publish their ideas, and they also fail to have an impact (indeed, the most extreme of them we label cranks).

In between is the dangerous and subversive world that Hamming describes, where you teeter back and forth on the balance between compliant conformity to metrics and egotistical creative rebellion. It doesn't guarantee greatness, but it may be a fascinating ride, and it just might get you somewhere really worth going.


I think you are conflating productivity and creativity. The amount of research you produce is not necessarily related to how creative it is. (Some people produce a huge number of papers, none of which are very novel.)

Different fields have different expectations for how many papers are expected. For getting a job, what's important is that you are well regarded as a researcher. But to answer your question about creativity, here are a few ideas:

  • You need to have a solid background in your area. As a postdoc, I started working on some very technical problems, and didn't feel like I could be creative for a long time, because I was just following and learning the established techniques.
  • Ask yourself basic questions, and try to get a deep understanding of the things involved in your area. This leads to more questions, and lots of ideas. (Warning: this is not a way to maximize your number of publications.) Teaching helps force you do this, or maybe running a technical blog.
  • Talk to people, and discuss ideas with them.
  • Go to seminars and learn new things.

I will have to differ from the above answers as I don't think creativity is well defined or quantitively measurable concept. 'Originality' is, and is made sure by the journals. If someone publishes 5 or 10 papers a year in respected journals, then that at least would mean that they develope conclude more original ideas more efficiently than many others.

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