This is not to blame the supervisor for obtaining few results, but clearly phd students working in large groups or under good guidance can exploit more their potential. Also phd students working in large groups often publish as a co-author just because there is a lot of collaboration within the group. So at the end of the phd students from small groups have had less chances of publishing more.

When applying to post doc positions or fellowship, the applicant must explain what results were obtained during the PhD, the skills that were developed (management, research, etc). Say that during the phd the student did not receive any guidance or support from the supervisor and that the lab only had 1-2 phds and no chance of collaboration within the lab, how can this be explained in a good light and also to show that 1) the student truly acted as an independent and mature researcher without complaining about the lack of supervision 2) to convey the message that the few results achieved during the phd should be evaluated in light of this lack of supervision, and that not being in a large lab did not allow to get those 'extra' papers that phd students in large labs might have chances of publishing.

  • 3
    Your black-and-white view of big vs small research groups does not match my experience of a wide range of variation in both. Sell what you actually did.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 12:41
  • 2
    As somebody who graduated from a very large CS lab, your assumption that a large group somehow translates into more papers for everybody brings bittersweet tears to my eyes. What it mainly brings, in my experience, is a supervisor stretched too thin to supervise, group politics, and many many students who get somehow left in the shuffle because they were not independent enough to deal with it and not loud enough to make themselves heard.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 9:55
  • @xLeitix of course there can be a lot of variation, but clearly a lab where the supervisor doesn't have time for its students and no shared projects, it's very different than a collaborative lab where many students can even get projects started between themselves. Perhaps you are referring to the other end of the spectrum? Getting a couple of 3rd-5th author papers + one first author paper definitely looks better than just the latter. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 12:02

1 Answer 1


Don't make excuses because you weren't in a big lab. Tell what you did and what you learned, be honest about it.
Important skills that you have acquired might include

  • the ability to plan, organize and conduct research mostly on your own. Make sure to point out how this will help you in the position you are applying for, e.g. you will be able to plan projects,...
  • the ability to network with foreign researchers (if you had almost no one in your lab to work with, you maybe exchanged emails with other labs, worked with them,...?).

These are only two examples of something you might learn in a small lab that you often don't learn in a big group. Depending on your situation, there might be other things of course, but try to figure them out. Then, there shouldn't be a reason to feel any worse than guys from a big lab, who might have one or two publications more than you.

  • Good answer. "Focus on the positive" is a valuable life lesson for all kinds of applications. It's impossible to frame a story that starts with "sure my results are only medium ..." in a way that makes people want to hire OP.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 9:57
  • @xLeitix I know about the focus on positive, that's why I asked how to explain between the line the lack of supervisorship or support. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 12:05

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