Thursday, September 23, 2010

A zero-sum game?

A few weeks ago I received an email from a colleague in the late hours of the night regarding a manuscript I am working on. Attached was a paper recently published by researchers overseas investigating an effect very similar to that which I am attempting to publish. Although my immediate reaction was one of panic I thought it best to neglect the paper at least until the following morning as I saw no point in jeopardising a night’s sleep. Alas the damage had been done and after a restless hour or so in bed it became evident that sleep was a remote possibility. I reluctantly began reading the paper.

Long story short, having read the paper I’m optimistic that my work still has something to offer and will hopefully still be published. However a visit to the researcher’s website invoked a second wave of anxiety. This particular researcher, who is now a postdoctoral fellow, had four first author publications and eleven publications in total prior to completing their PHD.

This is not a discussion of quantity versus quality; I just wanted to raise the perhaps bleeding obvious point that as PHD students who aspire to forge a career in research, we are inevitably competing against other PHD students for career opportunities. Thus the bar is determined by the hours put in and quality of work produced by the post-grad researchers in our respective fields.

As a relatively new PHD student this is something I’d, until recently, neglected to think about. I’ve been travelling along optimistic (naively?) that as long as I conduct good science and work hard the publications will come and opportunities will arise. Ultimately though, as hard as I may work, if those around me are working harder then I’m in trouble.

Having discussed this with my supervisors they are strongly of the opinion that 99.9% of my resources should be devoted to publishing papers and that time spent away from this endeavour carries with it a cost. Initially I scoffed at the idea that the little time I spend away from my research is detrimental. The more I think about it though the more I’m beginning to questioning whether I’ve struck the right balance between PHD work and additional work such as tutoring and RA-ing. I’m even questioning whether I should be writing this blog given this could be 400 words towards my manuscript...

The reality is that time is a precious commodity in this business and it would seem that to succeed it must be treated as such. So how do you strike the right balance in what in many ways seems to be a zero-sum game?


James Retell


  1. strangely, it says that I like this, even though I have just read it. There's lots to say here, but yes, it's a competition. But in the end, what matters is what's IN the papers.

  2. Bart - fixing that Facebook thing is on my "to do list". Long story short, the Facebook code is a bit silly, and looks like we might have to generate new code for each post for it to work properly. Not sure if I want to make my bloggers have to go to that much effort.

  3. Hey Bart - Yep, both my supervisors totally agree. I'm currently tossing up between the financial benefits of tutoring versus its cost to my time and productivity. Not sure how well I conveyed that in the Blog. I was conscious though of not slagging off tutoring given the Blog's association with the school. I don't want to be responsible for low tutor numbers next semester :P.

  4. Unless you spend your entire life working, there will always be someone putting more hours in than you do. But original science is not just about hours logged. It's also about being creative and thoughtful. I don't know about you, but I often have my best ideas after not thinking about something for a while. This doesn't mean you do nothing until you get struck by some brilliant insight, but it does mean that time off can be just as important as time on.

  5. Hey Tom...
    good point. However, I do think teaching is different from other jobs because it is more personally involving and thus takes the focus away from the PhD.
    A question I have meant to ask you is: Have YOU done any tutoring, and if yes, how many hours/semesters? Or did you do any RA work?
    Another question: Didn't you have 7 publications, and 2 papers in revision when you got your PhD? (This will help clarify the question, how many publications does one need to get into Harvard?) Hope you're not too embarassed by these questions, but keeping these facts quiet will not help current PhD students to make the right choices!

  6. Good point, Tom. If you happen to have any spare ideas, send them our way :O

  7. Hi James, nice post. My view of scientific publishing is that it's an opportunity for me to bundle up a unit of new knowledge and share it with the world (where hopefully it will get archived for eternity). Pretty cool when you think about it, so I try to do it as much as I can. I've never really thought about it in terms of tradeoffs with other activities.

    I have to admit that I'm a serial procrastinator. I don't regret any of it - it's a huge perk of academia to combine your work with personal interests (e.g. epic snowboarding during a research fellowship). Likewise, I know that many people enjoy tutoring (I've never done it).

    However, In my experience nothing substitutes for large blocks of uninterrupted time where you can "think deep" about your research. The only way I've been able to write manuscripts is to spend a full week doing nothing but writing the manuscript. I know it's contrary to the conventional wisdom of "write a little, often" but I substitute it with getting into the habit of publishing one-page conference abstracts annually.

    To answer your question though... I'd encourage extra-curricular activities in years 1-2 when you're still learning the ropes and getting into your project (how do you write quality articles when you haven't done anything yet?), but completely focus on your research in years 2-3-4 when you have lots to write about (and before your post-doc and other life distractions).