“What’s your number?” In academic circles, inquiring about publication number is not only common, but it is expected that your answer be competitive. And no matter how objectively competitive your “number” is, it rarely feels adequate. This inadequacy, often referred to as imposter syndrome, fuels self-doubt and a wealth of other mental health issues among PhD students that continues to go undiscussed. By placing so much emphasis on a number, we have lost sight of the students behind these publications – allowing many of them to “perish” in the PhD process. For these reasons, I believe the publish or perish phenomenon is one of the greatest instigators of the mental health crisis among PhD students.
The blood, sweat and tears of PhD students and Post-Doctoral research fellows are at the core of every publication. While any great mentor is also invested in the process, the heavy lifting is often done by the students and fellows. This process results in long hours, high stress, personal life sacrifices, worsening diet, fewer hours at the gym, etc. And all to serve what purpose? Increased publication rate. While there is certainly an inherit interest in the work being done and a passion to simply disseminate knowledge, job security and success are very quickly evaluated with one question: “What’s your number?” This results in an increase in stress and hours in the lab, a decrease in work-life balance, and mental health ultimately suffering. Even the most passionate, motivated, resilient of students begin to crumble. Oftentimes, as students and fellows, we have very little control over this number that is at the center of our academic careers. While it is certainly on us to maintain a research project, publishing productivity is directly tied to your faculty sponsor. If they choose to take a sabbatical or have a different productivity rate, your number may be negatively impacted while having nothing to do with your own rate of productivity (of course, the opposite may also be true). Some researchers have begun to talk about what underlies the demise of intact mental health in PhD students, but to me, at its core, is the demand for never-ending productivity, driven by the knowledge that if we do not publish, our careers will inevitably perish. Therefore, we willingly allow our personal lives and mental health to perish instead.
So how do we change such an institutionalized practice? I recommend we shift our focus away from quantity of publications towards a policy of viewing students holistically. The argument I often face against this premise is that it is just too difficult to objectively evaluate a candidate on the basis of anything other than the number of publications, or that this places more responsibility on the student. However, activities students already engage in, such as teaching and mentorship are grossly under-appreciated skills that are objectively evaluated each semester by undergraduates whose opinions matter. Publication quality can objectively be evaluated by taking into account journal impact factor and number of citations. Research experience, while slightly more difficult to evaluate objectively, can be assessed on the basis of whether the student pursued opportunities beyond the scope of their program requirements. Evaluating whether they promote open science and diversity are all more valuable metrics than any “number” could ever provide. By placing more emphasis on the holistic individual, and giving less attention to number of publications, we will encourage them to become a well-rounded “good citizen” of science, and subsequently, improve their mental well-being and the well-being of future generations of students.