I am a poor grad student.
And I don’t mean in the classic, monetary sense. (Although, let’s be real, what grad student isn’t poor?) I am ‘poor’ in the currency of academia- publications. If you’ve never experienced academia for yourself, you might not be aware of how profound and accurate that comparison is.
Some people enter graduate school- or even undergrad- already ‘wealthy,’ having their name attached to multiple publications. Others of us come with a pittance, perhaps scraping by with a single paper- perhaps not even that.
But in graduate school, papers suddenly take on a whole new level of importance. In some departments (like Biology) you aren’t allowed to graduate without at least one first-author publication. Quite literally, you have to be the driving force behind a successful project in order to earn your degree. In other departments, publications come much more ‘easily,’ and a publication record in the teens is more typical. In a few departments, publishing isn’t required for graduation at all- but if you don’t publish good luck getting that post-doc you have your eye on!
Publication expectations vary greatly, and it’s vital to understand the publication currency of your chosen field when you’re beginning graduate school, as well as anytime you start a new project. I don’t mean to imply that publishing is bad. After all, one important facet of science is disseminating information! But it is a harsh reality of academia that publishing can be a highly political, competitive process and it’s important to approach a new project with that in mind.
In my experience, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day experiments of a lab without fully considering the path to publication. This is especially important to do if you don’t have a thesis committee or don’t meet with your committee very often. If your adviser is not willing to discuss these questions with you, there is a problem. In that case, you probably want to avail yourself of on-campus resources to resolve the situation. If you don’t, you’re likely to find yourself spinning your wheels in lab for far longer than you might have planned.
In any case, here are a few questions that I’ve learned to ask when beginning a new project.
What is the hypothesis?
This might seem like an overly simplistic question, but you need to be extremely wary if you notice you’re doing science without a defined question. This is called exploratory science (as opposed to hypothesis-driven science), and it does have its place. But it’s also very dangerous. Think of it like walking around randomly in a new continent. You might discover a long-forgotten civilization or a new species of insect- or you might just come across mosquitoes and a lot of rain. You need to sit down with your adviser and have a careful conversation about the potential risks and benefits of this type of science, and what you’ll do if you just end up covered in bug-bites.
Am I developing a new technique?
Developing a technique is incredibly time-intensive. Often it will take years before a new technique works. If you’re not at the very beginning of your graduate career, steer clear of projects that involve technique development. This is especially true when the technique itself is not publishable (i.e. if you’re trying to recreate a technique from a previous paper).
What is the path to publication?
This is the most important question to ask. What story are you trying to tell? How does each experiment logically follow from the one before? How many experiments are necessary to address your hypothesis, one way or another? It is often useful to sketch out what each figure in your theoretical paper will look like and discuss what experiments need to happen to get you there.
What if the experiments don’t work out the way I expect?
Perhaps you formulated a beautiful, crisp hypothesis with two possible answers: yes or no. So you collect the data and find that the long-awaited answer is… maybe?! How is that even possible?
Turns out, science is nothing if not messy! Your data won’t be perfect, 99% of the time. But yet, it can be exceptionally difficult to convince your adviser to let you publish something that doesn’t ‘look good’ for whatever reason. Try to account for as many different results as you can when formulating your path to publication. Try to design your hypothesis so that you have a story no matter what happens. Otherwise, you might find yourself in the unenviable position of having to start a new project in year 4 or 5 of your PhD.
What does the author list look like?
This is a topic you’ll hear about in any responsible conduct of research class. It’s important to discuss the author list as early as possible so that everyone has the same expectations. What happens if you’re relying on a first-author publication and then- surprise!- your adviser decides that the post-doc working on the project before you did more of the work?
These are questions that might seem like they’re far on the horizon as you start a new project or a new degree. But time has a way of creeping up on you, and no matter how tempting it is you never want to jump into experimentation without having planned things out.
As with real currency, academic currency is not the end all of existence. There are plenty of valuable things you can do in a lab that have a low chance of publication, or none at all. But it is good to be aware of when you’re making the decision to engage in such activities. At the end of the day, you do want to have a thesis that will allow you to graduate.
At the beginning, It can feel like you have all the time in the world to ammase enough publications for graduation. I admit I initially approached my graduate career with this mindset. But before you know it, you’re one or two projects in and you realize that there’s an awful lot of work left to do before you can publish. Luckily, I am now on a productive path that will, with any luck, allow me to publish one or two papers in the next year.
So, for now, I am content to be a poor grad student!