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I'm just starting my second year of a master's program and hoping to apply to PhD programs, but I still haven't even submitted a paper for publication. I've worked on 3 research projects over the past 3 years, all of which have fallen apart for different reasons. [EDIT: They fell apart not because they didn't validate my hypothesis or something, but in two cases, because of advisor drama and in one case because another student found a significant flaw.) How can I choose my next project in such a way that minimizes the chances that it'll also just fall apart?

My experience with these abandoned projects has, I believe, taught me three things:

  1. Vet potential advisors more thoroughly,

  2. Don't waste time on a project you don't think is all that promising right from the get-go, and

  3. Get on a project with a team, not one that you'll work on individually.

However, my experience has also shown me that:

  1. It's really impossible to know what an advisor is like until you've already crashed and burned with them.

  2. Good projects are hard, if not impossible, to come by. At the time that I worked on the projects that fell apart, they were basically my best options.

  3. Having to find a team to work with puts you at the mercy of whether people a) have something you're even able to do, b) are actually good to work with, and c) want to work with you (unless, I guess, you're just assigned to the team by your advisor). I've already been shot down by one potential research partner.

Meanwhile, I know of an undergrad who worked on a project for one quarter and now has a publication at a major conference. Do I just have to face the fact that I'm not cut out for this research stuff? I'm starting to get the impression that I'm just a "quitter," but I feel that every time I've quit, I've done so for completely valid reasons, not just because the "going got tough."

Is there something I'm not thinking of or doing in order to find a good project and take it all the way through to completion?

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    Having a publication is not a mandatory admission criterion for any PhD I have ever heard of. – astronat Sep 11 '17 at 21:15
  • @astronat Certainly not mandatory but isn't it important, especially for getting into a top program? And for an applicant who is already in a master's program? – user124384 Sep 11 '17 at 21:19
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    Important, yes, but not crucial. I would consider myself to be in one of the top institutions in my field in the UK, yet myself and none of my cohort (6 of us) have published yet, and all but one of us has a Master's degree of some description. I therefore think the answer very much depends on US vs Europe. – astronat Sep 11 '17 at 21:29
  • Hm, I'm in the US so maybe it does. I also heard that publications don't matter all that much from a US professor, but her proof of that was that her publications prior to acceptance into a PhD program weren't that great -- not that she didn't have any at all. – user124384 Sep 11 '17 at 21:33
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    I wouldn't expect master's students to have publications going into a Ph.D. program, even in Europe (and I've worked in Europe and in the U.S.). – aeismail Sep 11 '17 at 21:53
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I've been in a somewhat similar situation. I agree with your point #1 - advisors are crucial! To better vet them, I would try to talk to PhD students who have been working with them for a few years. Ask them about how their work is going, and how they came to their subject, how their advisor handled it when they ran into trouble with their approach, etc.

For how to pick a subject that has high likelihood of leading somewhere, it's always a gamble but in my previous group, the people who were taken on as part of a EU project grant seemed to do better in this regard - the subject has to be very thoroughly thought out for the application, with "worst case results" analysis where you practically have to guarantee publishable results (even if those will not be top-conference results).

  • I did talk to several of students of one advisor, and they only said good things, and he turned out to be the worst of all! Then I talked to a student in the same dept who has a different advisor, and she mentioned that she'd been warned about that guy. So I think asking people who aren't students of a particular professor but instead just know of him is the way to go. As for grant applications, that's a great idea and supports my decision to apply to the NSF fellowship even though I don't think I have a chance in hell. At the very least it might lead to clarifying my ideas. – user124384 Sep 12 '17 at 5:06
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The fact that your projects failed should not be a bar to your continuing on to a Ph.D. program. The reality of research is that most research fails! Remember that Edison tried over a thousand combinations before finding one to work for his light bulb. Nobody is 100 percent successful in research and projects end up falling short of expectations or failing altogether a substantial percentage of the time. It's how you persevere through the failures that distinguishes a successful researcher from an unsuccessful one.

Moreover, projects working or not working can be a matter of luck, and sometimes it can take an extended period of time to make a breakthrough. During my Ph.D. project, I had basically nothing but failed approaches to show for two and a half years (!) before I had my "Eureka!" moment. I wrote six papers in the remaining three and a half years after that.

So I wouldn't worry about finding a "good" project: ideas that seem sound on first blush can fall through, and a "high-risk, high-reward" type project can lead to big breakthroughs in the long run. Focus on doing something that interests you, so that you can keep going when you run into rough patches (and they will come).

  • The issue with these projects though isn't that the results weren't in line with my hypothesis but drama with advisors: in the 1st case, the advisor was just impossible to get a hold of, in the 2nd case, the project wasn't really in my advisor's wheelhouse, so he didn't notice a glaring problem that was identified late in the process by another student, and in the 3rd case, my advisor claimed the project was publishable, and after I worked on it for months, one of his co-authors revealed that they had no intention of publishing it. – user124384 Sep 11 '17 at 22:03
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    So if the problem is with the advisor, why are you worrying if you're "cut out" for research? It just sounds like you need to choose a better advisor, and that's a different problem than choosing a research project! – aeismail Sep 11 '17 at 22:06
  • Well, it's been three different advisors. And in the case of 2 of them, their other students seem to get publications just fine. – user124384 Sep 11 '17 at 22:08

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