“Dear Dr. Ye, I regret to inform you that the Editorial Board has rejected your manuscript...”
One glance at these words in the newly received email still made me frozen, following by a great disappointment. As a postdoc working on cognitive neuroscience, my neural system doesn’t seem to habituate to this kind of rejection. There is evidence shown that animals do not habituate their fear response to odors critical to their survivals (e.g., to rats, the odor of fox or cat). Are the young researchers hardwired with the fear of rejection? Is it published or perish for young researchers?
I began to think about these questions seriously only in the last two years of my PhD program. At the beginning of my training, I spent a lot of time playing with my data and experiment design, spotting the covariates, modifying the hypotheses. I enjoyed doing these kinds of work, which is like a fantastic loop of exploration, deduction, and modification. I did not even bother to write the manuscripts. However, things went different years later, when I had to think about my future in academia seriously. As a requirement to get the degree aside, the number and quality of publications play a decisive role when pursuing a position in academia after graduation. There was a popular metaphor on Chinese social media years ago said that a PhD student without a publication is like an imperial concubine that hasn’t give birth to any prince, as the “infertility” would make their life in academia/imperial family insecure. When I scrolled down the pages of the advertisement of institutes and departments, feeling like a data set that did not fit into their hypotheses, liked “the candidates who would like to apply the position should meet the following criteria: he/she had published at least two articles at SCI/SSCI/EI journal as the first author or corresponding author; or he/she had published one article at the journal with impact factor higher than 8 as the first author or corresponding author”. I looked down the publication section on my CV, lying only one publication as first author, seeing the doors shut right before me. This experience repeated when I applied for funding or grant as a postdoc, trying to convince the decision makers of my potential by filling many forms. Besides the demographic information, two indispensable sections of these forms are publications as well as academic awards, which also boils down to the number and quality of publications. In some way, publication is like a universal currency in academic world, to exchange for grant, funding, award and position. Researchers with gorgeous list of publications, which brings about long list of awards, are likely to have an easier life than those only have few lines of publications, some of which timidly followed by notes of “under review” or “submitting”.
Instead of analyzing the data set, in front of the people in charge, I became the data set itself. At that time, I did feel the pressure to prove myself to others, and publication, as data points, certainly shored up my descriptions about my ability, since working experience per se may not be persuasive enough. Analogy to a research article, the authors need data to support their claims. Evidence rather than description per se endows others with enough power to detect the effect (my ability). Moreover, people in charge of the job opportunities (most of them are senior researchers) often have hectic lives, hence with limited time to probe the ability of the candidates. Publications compressed multiple skills in pieces of paper that reviewed by several peers and judged by editor, certainly served as solid data points. Sadly, I didn’t have much data points to convince them, as the number of my publication was scant. Of course, I may never know the reasons why I did not get response from some of the applications, but at that time, I always blame my small pool of data, i.e., publications.
At last, I was kindly offered a job opportunity as a postdoc, since the principal investigator knew me well beyond my publications. We knew each other as people probing the questions, modifying the hypotheses, troubleshooting the apparatus. However, it’s nearly impossible to compress the data of these experiences and send them to the potential employees. Albeit not being reviewed and published, I think that this data is an indispensable part to a PhD student. Exploration in the unknown world can be hard, instead of being right at the first time, which is uncommon and sometimes calls for luck, it’s more crucial and practical that we learn to modify one’s hypotheses and disentangle the patterns hidden in the data, and keep the exploration in spite of countless failures. Publications certainly can be testimonies to that, as a record capsule of one’s logic, hard work and innovative mind. However, as researchers standing behind our own publications, we are more than that. There are a lot of other qualities which are vital to one’s life in academia that don’t always manifest themselves in publications, like one’s calmness in front of obstacles, one’s acceptability to be fallible, specially, one’s persistency when lack of remarkable publications.
I have to admit that I do feel jealous when seeing the peers have publications one after another, while my work stuck at certain point, far from submission. It’s easy to devalue myself and even doubt that whether I am suitable to academia. I am grateful that I don’t obsessed with these ideas and don’t keep looking down to my own work. In my view, it’s really unhealthy to depend on one’s value in academia exclusively on his or her publications, although publications seem like a relatively efficient hence popular way to evaluate a researcher. Researchers are exploring in unknown field, which is filled with errors and dead ends. It’s true that some breakthroughs can happen overnight, but there are many others take a lot of time and can only be achieved in a long stretch of time. As a young researcher, I certainly would feel the pressure of publication, trying to establish myself in the field I work in. Nevertheless, in the long run, we are not in a rush. As to me, the most significant reward in academia is the joy of discovery, gaining a piece of knowledge to our world. This can be hampered by the pressure of publication, which may make the mysterious pattern of data less tolerable and overlook the important message hidden in it, resulting in proving hypotheses rather than probing and examining them.
At this early stage of my life in academia, I do look forward to probing more problems and publishing the results to share with others. Through these publications, I introduce myself to the field and establish my position there. On the other hand, I try to not rely on my publications to define myself, as doing research is such a struggling as well as rewarding process per se, rather than something only in exchange of an output. It’s true that these outputs can secure our position and give us fame and fortune, but the joy of exploration is the most critical reason I love academia. It’s important that our system can cultivate and preserve this kind of love. Although publication is an indispensable index in most of the evaluation system, we should not let the evaluation systems take over. Instead, as a group of human beings trying to unravel the mysterious world, it’s important that we support each other and believe in ourselves, rewards the ones with the great achievements and encourage the others that haven’t at the same time.
I thank Yuan Zhuang for her comments on this blog and Yuli Wu for the photograph.