PhDs, publications and pipelines

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgThree papers, an introductory chapter and some broad conclusions. Those are the ingredients of a Ph.D. dissertation in it's simplest form.

That recipe doesn't tell you anything about all the blood, sweat, tears, and sleepless nights that go into those papers. It doesn't mention how your personal and professional identity gets inextricably tied up with the subject for the time it takes to do the work and publish the papers. It doesn't hint that those papers help define you as a scientist, get you a real job, and make a name for yourself. It just says three papers.

My first PhD paper was published in 2006, shortly after I defended. The second paper came out earlier this year. The third paper goes back to the editors on Monday, at the end of what hopefully is its last ever set of revisions. If all goes well, the editors give it their blessing and we move on to proofs and publication.

Three papers. And I'm out of material from my Ph.D. It's all published or about to be.

For years my research identity has been wrapped up in a particular subject and a particular field area. Now I live someplace far away and I have to establish my independence as an investigator in order to build my case for tenure. And, of course, I have to keep that publication pipeline flowing.

Time to move on to other things then. It's what I've been slowly trying to do over the past 1.5 years as a professor, but AGU and the nearing publication of my last dissertation paper has brought this reality home to me in an urgent manner. I've really really got to do something new, something of my own conception, something good enough to merit publication and recognition, and I've got to do it soon. My professional future depends on it. It's a bit scary.

And it's also exciting. I've got a new PhD student starting next month, and she's going to work on a project that starts to get to the core of an area where I am planning my research focus for the next few years. I can't wait to read the literature with her, take her to her first field area, get her collecting data, and start to see some results. I am trying to remind myself that she will in a new place and a new field; I have to remind myself that she may not turn out to be a mini-me, unabashedly in love with the topic; I am trying to remind myself that field science is unpredictable and we may not get the super-cool killer results I seek. So it will take some time before we are publishing amazing science in this new field area, on this new topic. But still I am excited.

I've also got a second research area to which I'm hoping to attract a student. I've got a proposal pending, with good chance of being funded, and I've got some ideas for science on the cheap (and dirty) that I can do with undergraduates if need be. This second area too will take time before it's ready for the publishing primetime. You know, first I've got to collect some data and figure out what it means. But still I am excited.

In the meantime, I've got a post-doc project to finish up, write up, and publish, and I've got to do it soon. I've got a third author paper that I've got to get back to the first author, and I've got to finish up and write up the stuff from my AGU poster. So I've got enough droplets to keep the publication pipeline trickling for now.

But with the clarity that comes from being really, truly done with the PhD papers, I am ready to move on to new research subjects, get to know a new field area, and to define my pre-tenure research identity. And all the while to keep the publications pouring out of the pipe. At least that's the plan.

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I have to remind myself that she may not turn out to be a mini-me

As a statistical matter, it is nearly certain that she will not turn out to be a mini-you. You are where you are, because you have already filtered to the top of a stringent winner-takes-all selection process. Your grad student has not yet been through this filtering process. Furthermore, the best graduate students in your field--as you surely were--are not likely to throw their lot in with an untried assistant professor.

This is why a major goal for you as a relatively new assistant professor is to create an environment in which your trainees--even though they are not mini-yous--can succeed at reaching their full potential.

And even if she would turn out be a mini-you, remember that no matter how excited she is, she still has a lot to learn. And that she, too, may have a personal life. That's what my supervisor sometimes seems to forget at least.

By PhD student (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink

And with regard to Comrade PhysioProf - I chose to work with an untenured new assistant professor even though I had also been accepted by one of the most esteemed scientists in my field. I think I choose right.

By PhD student (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink

And apparently all the Christmas food is attacking my brain. *I think I chose right.*

By PhD student (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink

I chose to work with an untenured new assistant professor

Comrade PhysioProf did his post-doc with a brand new assistant professor, joining her lab when all the new equipment and shit was still in unpacked boxes. I never said that this can't be an excellent choice; it's just perceived as a risky one, and hence not the road the best candidates tend to take. In fact, there are a number of reasons why it can be better for a trainee to join the lab of a new assistant professor. But it is surely a risk.

I agree that it's a risk. I'm just not so sure that the best candidates typically take the safe road.

By PhD student (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink

Wow, sounds like 2009 will be quite a year for you!

To continue this comment discussion: I did my grad work in the group of a PI who was in only the second year. It was hella risky, and it was pure hell going through the the years of chasing R01s....not to mention the politics that all of us students inevitibly got roped into.

On the plus side, I got an invaluable look into the tenure process at the "R1" level as well as a ton of experience editing and even writing grants.

Would I do it again? I'm honestly not sure....

That's funny. Or perhaps not. While I know my supervisor is writing grant proposals (and seems to be incredibly busy doing so) I do not get any look into the tenure/grant poposal process at all.

By PhD student (not verified) on 26 Dec 2008 #permalink

Too bad. That was the most beneficial part of my whole grad experience (well...except for the whole doing research, getting pubs thing). Being able to write (grants AND manuscripts) is the most important skill I got out of grad school.

I took a similar risk as a PhD student, joining a lab in which my mentor was an untenured assistant professor. She had fewer years to make tenure than I (realistically) had to finish! There were definitely some difficult and emotional times, but that choice is still the single best professional decision I have made. She was a wonderful teacher, still a close friend, and I came out of that experience with a comprehensive, unfiltered, honest view of what I should expect. And I am undeterred!

By new asst. prof. (not verified) on 27 Dec 2008 #permalink

Congrats on getting the PhD papers out and good luck with the new projects. I have taken a slightly different route, in that I have spent a lot of time since finishing the PhD three years ago at getting new projects off the ground, while letting the papers from the dissertation fall a bit to the wayside. I can't say this has been a better strategy. I'm now at the point where quite a lot can be written up (or is in the process of being written) from the new projects, while I'm still deep in revisions from the PhD. I somehow think I won't be able to catch up until some day in the future when I'm able to take a sabattical.