Views from one grumbling PhD student

Currently, there is no metric that can capture curiosity and the love for science. But what to do till we invent one?

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I still vividly remember the enthusiasm I had when I first embarked in my PhD. I was ecstatic that I was given the opportunity to pursue research I am passionate about and not have to pay for tuition, having secured a scholarship. I was full of optimism. I imagined that I would publish exciting research quickly; two articles in my first year and ten or so by the time I obtain my degree.

During my first few days, I had the infamous conversation with ‘the PhD supervisor’. In this brief talk, I had the impression that I would be given ALL the freedom a PhD student would dream off, a thing I thought I would be forever grateful for. Little did I know that choosing my research topic, among a few options, was a huge challenge and that many experienced scientists dread and find difficult.

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The first few months were a blur to say the least. Confusion was the dominant state of mind. I still carry traces to this day (now, two years in). I was torn between fulfilling the faculty’s requirements and my ‘overly naive optimistic’ goals.

I was puzzled when I unravelled discrepancies between ‘written’ university criteria and local faculty ‘unwritten’ expectations from PhD students. Written rules state that I need to publish (an) article(s) with a collective impact factor of 2. This is not hard to accomplish in my field, as a ‘good’ pharmaceutical sciences journal has an average impact factor of 2. On one first author publication over a four year PhD; this can’t be right? Unwritten expectations were an average of three articles during the PhD with no specific impact factor requirement and no first author status. While both goals are attainable, this is puzzling huh…?!

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

After confusion came blame! Non-stop blame for failing to produce a single publication in year 1. High levels of panic and anxiety also ensured. Feelings of shame and self-pity took over my life. I had low self-esteem and felt as an imposter walking everyday into my department. I browsed ResearchGate profiles of other students, constantly checking their progress not so much to compare myself but to search for reassurance that I am not alone. I created a Twitter account. This was great for following research groups and finding out about new publications and ideas. However, it emboldened my heightened sense of ‘lack of achievement’, compared to the achievements of others. I hope researchers tweet about their failures as well!

After submitting my first article to the journal, anxiety kicked in and adrenalin was madly pumped in my body. I checked the online tracking system frequently (every 10 minutes or so!) eager to see on the screen the magic word.


Finally, breakthrough! I published my first article in the beginning of my second year. Hooray!

I was happy, albeit only for a short period of time. A strange feeling of being weighed down took over. All I could think about was that I have worked hard for over a year for one article. I had this image in my head that this article was written with my own blood. I was mentally and physically drained and exhausted.

I added the article to my ResearchGate and saw my RG score. I felt like my whole existence can be summed up in these two digits. A number that has no real meaning in terms of scientific value or advancement of knowledge is somehow more important than my whole existence!

Faculty members and colleagues congratulated me on my paper. While they did not ask, what I mentally heard was different. Questions, questions & questions….. When will you publish the next article? In which journal? What is the target impact factor? When? How?

Is there differential treatment between students?

Research supervisors and others ‘unconsciously’ push those with publications to publish more, yet the ones with no publications get a mellow treatment. Conversely, students who haven’t published receive more help while those with publications are assumed to be ‘experts’, entrusted with more research or other collaborative projects. The pressure to publish is proportional to how much students have already published! This can’t be right?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Wikipedia says: “Publish or perish" is an alliterative aphorism describing the pressure to publish academic work in order to succeed in an academic career.

I came to know this since my master’s degree. It was clear that when applying to grants, research teams with more publications are awarded more funds. However my first personal encounter with “publish or perish” was when I was preparing for my continuation exam. This is a test that PhD students have to pass after the second year to determine whether they can continue their research studies. Failing meant that a student would simply go home, two years wasted in vein! I (over) prepared, ready to present my findings and future research in front of two opponents. Obviously, I was nervous. However, I was more intrigued by the remarks of students and faculty members: “students who have published almost always pass the test”. Even at this early research career it is truly publish or perish.

I find it confusing and frustrating how much my future depends on publishing papers. Little to researchers talk about making a real scientific contribution and not wasting precious resources on dead-end research projects. Are these harder to measure or is there no will to measure them?

I refuse to believe that real scientific contribution and human advancement is not as important to everyone. After all, my only goal for always wanting to be a researcher was and is to serve humanity.

I always thought of a PhD as a stepping stone towards a subsequent career stage. I dream of leading a research group in a prestigious pharmaceutical company. How many papers are needed to secure me this job? Nobody seems to know? Is it about number or quality? Ohh yes, there seems to be 2 schools of researchers: those who want to publish as many articles as they can and those who focus on impact over and above quantity. I understand that mastering research skills will most definitely lead to better research, but it certainly does not fill that space under “list your publications in the space below” on research job applications. The first group fill a larger space in this section but compromise the RG score, H index* or whatever number the scientific community has decided to use to compress an entire life of scientific contribution. I suppose one can argue for the logic behind these metrics. Akin to the GPA in universities, you need a metric to rank scientists and researchers.

To publish, you need to have a multitude of skills. I came to know that mastering laboratory skills will not suffice, alone. I needed to have a photographers’ eye to capture the appropriate microscopy image, the drawing skills of an animator to create a graphical figure, the fluency and articulation of a poet to portray my message across, programming skills of a hacker to construct charts and analyse my data, not to mention the negotiation and people skills of a diplomat to succeed. Importantly, you also need exciting results!

However, the majority of research conducted, especially at the beginning of a PhD, is truly unexciting and often negative. But you hardly find negative results published.

“A strong record in the field” is perhaps the number one selection criterion for research jobs and grants. I think researchers need to combine a natural curiosity with strong technical ability and a genuine passion for science and its great potential. These personal attributes cannot be assigned numerical values, and as such are impossible to quantify. Even technical abilities cannot be tested theoretically. No existing scale can appropriately estimate scientific passion or curiosity. These are personal qualities that make great scientists, one that will make the world more beautiful and complete.

However to truly distinguish scientist, other aspects of their lives need to be addressed. Things like supporting charities, interesting hobbies and even their families. These make it possible to view a researcher as a human being. Ideally, one that is also filled with creativity and genuine hunger for knowledge and one who is devoted to making the world a better place, even if just (very) marginally!

A number might indicate how much research you published, but it’s only if you cling to these other thing that you can resist being perished and persist in your noble quests.

* RG score measures scientific reputation based on how an authors work is received by your peers 

H-index is calculated by counting the number of publications for which an author has been cited by other authors at least that same number of times.

Ala' Salem

PhD student, University of Pécs

Dr Ala' Salem earned her PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Pécs, her master’s in Pharmaceutical and Biopharmaceutical formulations with distinction from the University of Sunderland and her Pharm. D from the Jordan University of Science and Technology. Her research focuses on cocrystals, liposomes and nano-sized formulations. She is the author of numerous published papers in high ranking journals. She has also spent over three years working with non-governmental organizations like Doctors without borders in refugee camps and in supplying medications and vaccines to refugees in Jordan. She aspires to lead a formulation innovation team and create formulations for science fiction movies.  When not growing mesmerizing award-winning cocrystals in the lab or glued to her computer performing calculations, Ala’ enjoys finding inspiration from the depiction of futuristic medicines in science fiction movies or trying to spot wild foxes and insects.