High-pressure science

With every step up the academic ladder, there are more people competing for the same position. A good publication record is crucial to academic success – but is it enough? As a PhD student, I ask myself: Should I value publications over everything else during my PhD?

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The academic world should really be the subject of a soap opera. TV audiences seem to enjoy stories about intrigues, gossip, broken promises, betrayed friendships, manipulation, money, power — academia, as I have gotten to know it, is full of them.

The main character in this soap opera is an intelligent young researcher trying to “do science”. She has a ton of fresh ideas and an impressive set of skills, and she cares about her work deeply. But on her way to finding whatever she is looking for (maybe this sells best to the TV audiences if we make it about a cure for a terrible illness or a long-standing enigma of the universe?) she has to face innumerable obstacles and adversaries: lack of funding, patriarchal hierarchies, pressure to publish results before they are ready or in a way that they sound better than they are, intrigues and manipulation between colleagues and friends, a partner and a family that has to be left behind because world-wide mobility is a casual job requirement — the list goes on. If anybody who reads this would like to invest, I have a few scripts lying around I’d be willing to sell (every good PhD student has a back-up plan, right?). 

I started a PhD in cognitive science last year, after a B.A. in linguistics and two different master’s degrees in cognitive and brain science. I had plenty of time to think about my decisions, and because I was lucky to be integrated into a supportive research group even before my PhD started, I had the chance to speak to a lot of people, attend conferences, and overall take a good look at academic life before really committing. What I am trying to say is: I knew what I was getting myself into.  

I got lucky that I managed to get a grant to fund my PhD project – I know plenty of cases of people doing PhDs that they fund themselves by waiting tables – and in part this is due to the fact that I already had some publications. This was valued highly during the evaluation of my curriculum, along with my grades and my history of having spent time abroad. When it comes to pre-PhD publications, my impression is that the only effect that such a criterion has is that you will be able to see who has been planning to apply for PhD grants the longest. Already far ahead of applying for PhD grants, I knew that I should be working towards a publication, no matter how irrelevant the journal, no matter how interesting the finding. I knew that instead of working on the topic that I found the most interesting or challenging, I should work on the thing that would be the easiest to publish, and to be honest, you can see the difference from a mile away. When funding bodies seek people with publications, they are going to get people that knew they should prioritise publishing over anything else, and who did just that.  

I live in Barcelona, a city with a huge academic community, which means I frequently have the chance to get to know an amazing spectrum of research and the people behind it. I also meet a lot of other PhD students from a diverse array of disciplines. Whether people study trade in the middle ages, robotics, or the brain — we all seem to have a lot in common. The vast majority of PhD students I know are really passionate about their work, and we all feel lucky to be allowed to work on topics that are truly interesting to us. We value the fact that we are given a lot of freedom, that our job allows us to be creative, that we don’t get bored and that we are never not challenged.  

Like many PhD students I know, I occasionally feel the need to complain though, about everything from low pay to insecure job prospects to old-fashioned hierarchies. To be fair, I did know about all this before I started. In fact, I remember clearly how throughout my school years, whenever people asked me what my plans for the future were, and I would say, “I want to work at university,” they well-meaningly would curl their lips, wrinkle their noses, narrow their eyes, and gravely shake their heads. “Sorry, but there are no jobs in academia,” they would say. “You cannot make a living with that.” The fact that I managed to ignore this piece of advice until now probably shows that I am either extremely keen to do this or just stubborn and a bit stupid. 

The fact is that it is a privilege to be able to work in research. Despite all the reasons against getting into this, the main factor that makes academic work so competitive is that so, so many people wantto do it. Because it is such a nice job. It’s a luxury to have a job where you get to work with your brain, not with your body. It’s a privilege to be able to work on something that truly interests you, instead of feeling like you are rotting away slowly in front of a computer screen while making a big corporation richer and accumulating some savings for your retirement. 

I know that I am where I am largely because of privilege, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful. But that cannot mean that we have to accept everything the way it is. In fact, if we did that, we would contribute to maintaining the status quo, while really our responsibility should be to help the academic world become more inclusive. Any system that relies on previously existing funds will always exclude traditionally underrepresented groups within that system. The publishing industry, with its impact factors, publication fees, open-access prices, and bias for big headlines, is no exception. If applicants are judged based on their publication history, those people that got to work in labs with big funding, modern equipment, and established social networks, will have a huge advantage. But being in the right place at the right time doesn’t mean you’re a good researcher, and surely that is what applicants should be judged for, shouldn’t they? 

It seems to me that the huge amount of competition in this line of work is what creates most of these problems — not the way we deal with publications per se. The competition is what makes me feel like if ever I slip, or lag behind, or make a mistake, I will be out of the game immediately, and there will be ten other people behind me competing to take my place. I find myself feeling like I am taking a risk by working on something that I don’t yet know will lead to something publishable. Although I am only in my first year, I feel a lot of pressure to think ahead and ask myself what journal could accept an article on a topic like mine, and whether that journal has a high enough impact factor.  

It seems to me that the academic community has a tendency for self-contradiction when it comes to impact factors. On the one hand, people seem to agree that it is by no means the only way to evaluate the quality of academic work. On the other hand, everybody wants to publish in Natureor Science, and publishing in “low-brow” journals can be harmful to one’s reputation. We all seem to think that it shouldn’t have to be this way, but that we have to, regrettably, play by the rules if we don’t want to lose the race on the job market. I am still not far into my PhD and it makes it relatively easy for me to feel, perhaps, “humble” enough to not want to submit to this competitive game — I can reconcile perfectly well with my self-image the idea that I am not yet ready to do work that should be published in the most famous of all places — so I could shrug off worries about what other people will think of me. Only I cannot afford to, it seems, because not submitting to this giant competition means essentially to kick yourself out of the game. 

But publishing at least two first-author papers in well-recognised journals during the three to four years of PhD (that is indeed the goal of everybody around me) is not a guarantee that you will be able to get a job afterwards. I have met extremely intelligent, hard-working people with great publication records further ahead in their careers struggling to find positions. It’s not just the publications, it’s not just the technical skills, and it’s not just the social network — you also seem to need sheer luck to be successful. At least that’s what it looks like from down here at the bottom. 

But all the strategy talk aside, there is also something else that we should be worried about, that goes beyond my personal worries about my future employment and whether the market is “fair”. Are the current practices really the best environment for the scientific community to achieve solid, reproducible results? I have seen fellow academics struggle to get their work published because they had no “positive results”, meaning that their original hypothesis had been refuted. I found it hard to believe at first that this would be a reason to reject a paper. If the hypothesis was good, then we should all care about knowing that it turned out to be false!   

And one more thing before I go: What is a PhD supposed to be for anyway? I think it should be about learning how to do research. I spent 5 years in undergraduate studies, and I think of this time as learning aboutresearch — learning about what is already known about the subject of study, what open questions there are, what methods people use. And then, in the PhD, you are supposed to start swimming. I wonder whether this is controversial (I would hope not), but in my opinion whether or not I can have a career in science should not depend on me making a break-through discovery in the first three years of that career — should it? 

I thought this was about becoming a true expert in something, about understanding the topic that you are interested in to a level that most other people won’t. I thought it was about trying to answer the questions that motivate you to put up with the stressful and insecure job market that is the academic world, and about learning to teach my subject to younger students. I always loved the idea of teaching at university, and now that I am at a level where I would be allowed to, I am trying to avoid it because it will be too much work and distract me too much from my other work. There is too much time pressure, and teaching is generally seen as something painful that should be kept to a minimum by most people in my environment. I cannot blame them — most teaching work in our university is either very badly paid or, in the case of PhD students, completely unpaid. But it’s sad, because teaching is great, and I would love to learn and grow as a person, teacher and researcher by having to formulate my knowledge in a way that other people can learn from me, and by exposing myself to the critical perspective of people that will look at what I say with a fresh, unbiased gaze. And after all, university has always been about teaching. So many things suggest that we, the next generation of researchers, are a burden to those people and institutions trying to get work done. But should we not be an investment?


Stefanie Sturm

PhD student, University of Barcelona

I am a PhD student at the University of Barcelona working on predictive auditory processing and motor-auditory interactions in the brain. As an academic, I am interested in the human mind – how it develops, how it works, and what makes it unique. I am also interested in topics related to feminism and gender.