Should you go for ambitious PhD research at the risk of failing and not publishing?
You know a PhD should consist of innovative research. As everything innovative, there is a risk of failing. It’s part of the game.
But let’s admit it, who wants to spend 4+ years on a PhD and walk away with zero publications, no diploma and no Dr. title before your name?
You want to make a dent in the universe, but it shouldn’t cost you your career. Should it?
It’s a badge of honour to say you managed to publish a paper in Nature. Unfortunately, the chances of you making it are slim. No offence.
This is the sort of dilemma Timmy was facing.
Timmy is a subscriber of the Next Scientist Newsletter. He sent me an email describing the situation.
Working in a hyper-competitive research lab
Timmy does his PhD in a group where research is very difficult and ambitious. Furthermore, it’s the kind of ambitious PhD research that could change the world. However, this can be achieved only at the cost of spending years and a lot of money.
That is what we want, isn’t it? Scientists tackling tough questions.
Last year Timmy’s group managed to publish a paper in Nature, thanks to the work of 5 genius postdocs during 5 years. Kudos.
That’s a cute story. We wish we were those postdocs, don’t we.
What we don’t hear so often are the stories of those who aimed and failed at getting published by a top-tier journal.
Timmy’s situation sounds like a Silicon Valley start-up, either you make it big or you go broke (I am exaggerating a bit here 🙂 )
Have you noticed how entrepreneurs are great at selling themselves?
If they succeed they say the disrupted an industry, or they made a dent in the universe. If they fail, they have learned a lot and are better equipped for the future.
Entrepreneurs seem to have hacked their brains to navigate a high-risk environment where if they lose they still win.
Let’s see how you can change your mindset towards ambitious PhD reseach and succeed in Academia no matter what.
Tip 1: Own your decisions
I have to admit I struggle with this one all the time, it’s not so easy. It’s a very grown-up approach though.
You know the rules of the game. You have two options and you know very well the consequences of each. Just make a decision and own it.
Tell to yourself that you are okay with your decision and the consequences. Remind it to yourself everyday after your made those decisions. After a while it should be in your system. No regrets.
You can also repeat something that I use to justify myself: “Given what I know now, given all the information at my disposal, choosing option B is what I want the most / seems the best option / makes most sense”.
Later on in life, if you have doubts, repeat again “Given what I knew back then…”.
This is part of growing up in life. When we are young we want everything, without effort and without giving away anything.
As adults we need to accept that in order to obtain something we need to say no tom other things. Want to have an exciting career, family life, free time, earn a lot of money and sleep 8 hours a night?
Not gonna happen. Something needs to give. And you need to be ok with that.
Own. Your. Decisions.
Tip 2: Play a game you cannot lose
This is similar to what entrepreneurs do. Reframe your options into a game you cannot lose.
With this I mean, what would each option give you even if it leads to failure? That way you will walk away with a win. This is what Scott Adams mentions in this great article.
You can hear more of it in his interview with Tim Ferriss.
Let’s say you go for the Nature paper route.
Being a person with a great sense of dut, the highest goal for you is to make big impact, even if that means going broke.
Shying away from such a challenge contradicts your values. Therefore, chose that route and stay true to your values.
You can also say to yourself that you will learn to tackle extremely difficult problems. Also operate in high stress environments. Those soft skills are valuable for the rest of your life even if you don’t publish in Nature.
Or you can say, that maybe if the hard work doesn’t deliver results good enough for Nature, at least you can refurbish them into multiple papers for journals with less impact factor.
Of course you must asses if it’s possible, perhaps not straight away but with some perspective and creative thinking it might work.
On the other hand, let me ask a few annoying questions to keep you ruminating.
- Why do you care so much for the impact?
- Do YOU really want the impact or is it what you think society, or family, or somebody else expects of you?
- Does a PhD really need to publish in Nature? (Most publications in that type of journal happen at postdocs level onwards)
- What’s more important, isolated Nature-level breakthroughs, or low level publications that keep the scientific machine going and pass on knowledge to the next generation of scientists?
All I can say is Timmy’s dilemma is faced by many people. You and Timmy are not alone in this.