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Physics How critical is the number of publications?

  1. Mar 31, 2017 #1
    Hello, I am a second year PhD student. Recently I got rejected from a scholarship opportunity where candidates are judged on a 9.0 scale on three areas: 1) Academic Excellence 2) Leadership 3) Research Potential. In the results, I scored 6.5 in Academic Excellence and 4.5 in Leadership but a mere 2.25 in Research Potential. I was neither surprised nor disappointed by the result. I have done few oral and poster presentations at conferences but I don't have any journal publication in my name. I have been doing simulation work for a subatomic physics experiment in development since my undergraduate studies. It got me thinking. If I can not get enough publications in my name, does that seriously hamper my chances of landing an academic position? I have a feeling that my academic excellence and leadership experience won't amount to much. I am not exactly sure how to boost my research potential.
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  3. Mar 31, 2017 #2
    I have been trying to advise another graduate student recently, and from what she tells me, publications with the student as first author seem to make a lot of difference. Personally, I think this is absurd, but then, no one cares what old men think anyway!
  4. Mar 31, 2017 #3
    I won't pretend to understand what committees do. Personally when I am on a committee making a hiring or promotion decision, I go and read the actual papers to get a feel for their quality and for the author's body of work and research capabilities. I am assessing them as a scientist for their ability to do science and do it well. The esteem of the journals and the number of citations is less important to me.

    But other faculty have other metrics regarding research potential. Some are concerned with the ability to bring in grant dollars. Others are concerned with the ability to mentor and train students in research. Others are concerned with what they perceive as balance within the department.

    To gauge the importance at a given school where you might want to work, I'd look at the publication record of recent hires. How many papers? Which journals? How many citations? Can you get an idea of funding from the Acknowledgements?
  5. Apr 1, 2017 #4


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    Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by "enough." As a general rule, quality trumps quantity. But academic output tends to be measured in terms of publications. Not exclusively, of course, but other metrics like grants awarded tend to correlate with publications. When you're a student, where the number of publications is really a small numbers game, scholarships and admissions committees will also look to other metrics like reference letters. A lot can depend on the field too. If you're in a sub-field that depends on massive collaborations, the dynamics are a little different. But by the time you are competing for post-doctoral positions, and even more so after that as you compete for tenure track positions, your research record will be front and centre.

    By doing research successfully. I know that's easier said than done. But the only way I know of to get better at doing research is to do it.
  6. Apr 1, 2017 #5
    In the US, this tends to be more true at research-focused universities (called R1, r2, and R3 institutions) than at more teaching-focused universities and colleges. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_research_universities_in_the_United_States

    For tenure track positions at schools not considered to be "research universities" there is much less focus on publications. It is common for faculty to be hired into tenure-track positions, promoted, and given tenure who may have only published 1-2 papers in grad school, and nothing since.

    For example, in my home state of Louisiana, there are only 6 or so research universities (LSU-Baton Rouge, LA Tech, UNO, UL-Monroe, Tulane, UL-Laffy, maybe one or two I'm missing). Every other college and university (30+ of them) in the state of Louisisana is NOT research focused and most have tenure track faculty positions.
  7. Apr 1, 2017 #6


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    The problem here is that you are not simply applying for a position. You are also COMPETING with other applicants. Considering everything else to be equal, how would two candidates compare if one has no publication while the other has several publications, some as first author, and appearing in prestigious journals? Which one would a potential employer, especially in an academic environment, choose?

    Also note that in many PhD programs (U. of Chicago in one such example), a publication in a respected journal in the student's area of expertise is a requirement for graduation. If you have not published, then you have no documented proof that you have made an original contribution to the body of knowledge in your field. This original research work is often a requirement to be awarded a PhD.

  8. Apr 3, 2017 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    What did you supply as part of the application- a 'research statement'? CV? Copies of presentation/papers? "Research Potential" seems to imply that you were evaluated based upon a prediction, and that prediction is based on the evidence you supplied- what evidence did you supply?
  9. Apr 3, 2017 #8
    The application required a CV, research statement, summary of past research and reference letter. I included as much information as I possibly could. I should mention for context that this was an award that was open to people across different fields of science. So, I was not just competing with people in my very specific subfield. I think I mentioned in the original post that I am in experimental subatomic physics. So, I guess the main inquiry I had was how I could improve or present myself better in the future.
  10. Apr 4, 2017 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    Without reading your application, it's hard to make specific suggestions. Too often, candidates fail to provide the right kind of information in their 'research statement', often focusing on the topic and what was done in the past, rather than communicating their own personal contribution and discussing the future.

    Remember, 'potential' means what will happen in the future. If you are part of a large group, what evidence did you provide that you can be successful without the group support? What evidence did you provide that *you* have potential, as opposed to the research topic?
  11. Apr 19, 2017 #10
    I think where you publish your journal papers is more important than the number of publications itself.
  12. Apr 23, 2017 #11
    I think departments generally have a specific research area in mind when they are hiring. They then look for an individual who will be the best fit. For that step of the process, I doubt they care much about simple, crude metrics.

    Publication output/journal prestige is a crude but necessary predictor of whether or not you'll be able to obtain consistent funding, however, so given two good candidates, they probably factor that in.

    Nevertheless, I've never been on a committee so other people probably have better advice.
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