A PhD is hard, and the success of a PhD usually depends on the number and the quality of publications. Some universities have specific requirements (e.g. the number of papers, impact factors, top conference/journal, etc.) on the publications for awarding a PhD degree, others may not have specific requirements, but the equivalent expectations still exist (this is my case). Research posts in academia and industry also have similar requirements or expectations.
I totally understand these requirements or expectations. Publications are essential to get the degree and job post, but more importantly, they are the media for us to communicate our idea with others in the same field, get valuable feedback to grow as an early career researcher, and they are our contribution to the research field.
Some pressure is good because it helps PhD students to make decisions and focus on the most important tasks. However, too much can cause problems on performance, creativity, physical and mental wellbeing, etc. Therefore, we need to understand the pressure and control it.
Where does the pressure come from?
Based on my observation, the publication pressure is caused by PhD students solely focusing on the big publication goal, to fulfil the requirements or expectations of degree and job post. However, without specific actions (i.e. good research), the goal can never be achieved.
What can we do?
I think PhD students should consider focussing on doing good research in daily research activities, this not only set us on the right track as early career researchers but also helps avoid unnecessary pressure that comes with publication goal.
With constant self-improvement, the quality of the research will increase over time, and the papers will come naturally, from entry-level workshop papers to top journals in the field.
The key is to break a big publication goal into daily research tasks that we can act on and improve over time, such as:
- Research thinking
- Academic writing
- Solid experiment design and logging
- Data analysis and backup
To give one example here, better experiment logging significantly improved the reproducibility of my work and saved me a vast amount of time when I needed to redo the experiments to gather new data. It also improved the accuracy of my work since I can trace the cause of abnormal data quicker and more efficiently.
I am currently on my way to my first workshop paper, the reproducible steps and program code will be open-sourced and attached with the paper. I believe this will help other researchers to use my findings in their research easier and move the field forward faster.
What if we need help?
We may not be able to break the goal into tasks very well, but we can get help from our supervisors and colleagues. I am very comfortable to admit to my friendly supervisors and colleagues that I do have many shortcomings, because I know I can trust and get help from them. Some feedback and advice may be a little harsh, but do not get emotional about it, write it down, take a walk or have a nap/sleep, then come back to see if it is helpful with a calm mind. I believe that the ability to take good feedback and advice regardless of how they are presented is a crucial skill to have.
Sometimes we just get too emotional due to the pressure. I usually talk to a friend who will give me a rational analysis. Also, I attach myself to “happy people” because happiness can be spread.