Updated: Feb 10
Are you a final year PhD student or a postdoctoral research without a first author paper? So am I...
For a long time, I felt frustrated and even embarrassed to have obtained my PhD degree before publishing my work. The truth is that publications during PhD training depend on more factors than the sole eagerness of the student. But this subject is not my aim here.
I rather want to offer you a new perspective. Not having first author publications is unpractical, yes. You may not be considered for prestigious grants, and when competing with peers having a huge list of first-author publications you may be out quickly. But not having first author publications is not the end of your scientific career. Not having first author publications does not equal to failure, either.
Whenever you are about to have a panic attack because you do not have an article yet, consider the next three points.
1. Keep looking forward.
PhD training is not the final destination it is just part of the journey. A PhD training yielding zero articles is not an obstacle for a postdoc producing several of them. Move out of the grudge and rather focus on those things that you could have done in order to push your publications. Were you lacking structure? It is unrare to find PhDs exploring way too many ideas in parallel and having many incomplete stories by the end of their contract. Did you leave too many knots untied? Once you got a key result or piece of information it is key to make the adequate controls and repetitions, before time catches you. Or maybe nothing worked? This may be trickier but the scientific community is progressively acknowledging the importance of sharing negative results. More and more journals are considering negative results and there are even journals dedicated solely to the publication of them.
2. Feed the other sections of your resume.
There is a saying that goes: If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars. The same way, if your only worry is that non-yet-existing publication, you are wasting precious energy you could be putting on other aspects that are as important. Yes! Being a good scientist does not revolve exclusively around articles.
Attending congresses, meetings and workshops are excellent opportunities to discuss your science, meet other scientists and exchange ideas. You do not need publications to participate and you would be training yourself in effectively communicating your ideas, establishing connections and creating your personal brand. The latter are very important for making a successful scientist!
3. Focus on impact rather than impact factor.
Let's be honest. You did not become a scientist because your life dream was to publish articles. Probably, that part of the job did not even cross your mind. I bet you became a scientist because you wanted to understand the universe. Or maybe you were passionate about numbers and how they can explain many phenomena. Or perhaps you dreamt of witnessing a microscopic event. And through it all, you became a scientist because you wanted to help explaining the world and in the process perhaps help others.
So hold on to that thought and thrive through it. As a PhD, you have so much to offer and the world needs you, with or without first author publications. Below, I share a few cool things you could do while waiting for your beloved work to get published, and that might are even more exciting and impactful:
Participate in "I am a Scientist, get me out of here", an online activity where school students connect with real scientists about real science. Students challenge the scientists by asking them anything they want and vote for their favorite scientist to win a prize of £500 to communicate their work with the public.
Join On-Call Scientists, that connects scientists interested in volunteering their skills and knowledge with human rights organizations that are in need of technical expertise.
Volunteer for "Science in the Classrooms", which looks for graduate students to help annotate scientific research papers making them accessible to a diverse audience.
Tutor students. We are all here because at some point someone more experienced believed in us and guided us through the path of science. Returning the favour is one of the quickest ways to impact the world. Besides, young students are a reminder of what science is really about: exploration and knowledge!