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How valuable is a PRL publication (not primary authorship) for a young physicist?

  1. Jul 27, 2010 #1

    the professor supervising my bachelor thesis is happy with the results. Together with another co-author, he is currently writing a paper for Physical Review Letters and is considering adding my results to it. However, for this purpose, he needs more general results. In other words, if I want my name on that paper, I would have to put in some work for this in the summer.

    I am aspiring to make a career in theoretical physics. I do not mind a little extra work (I also have other academic plans for the summer). However, I will very probably be the last of three in the authors list.

    Do you think this is worth the pains? What is the value of one's name appearing on a PRL paper, especially with regard to a career in theoretical physics? May it come in handy e.g. when applying for a doctorate position or possibly even for a master thesis position abroad?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 27, 2010 #2


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    It would not only look good on your applications and CV, it would give you valuable experience in writing, publishing, and working with collaborators to get something up the publishable point. Definitely take advantage of this opportunity.
  4. Jul 27, 2010 #3


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    The OP said he would likely be third author, but that too would be a good thing to have on a CV.
  5. Jul 27, 2010 #4


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    oops, what did I read? :rofl:
  6. Aug 12, 2010 #5
    One other thing, it's very common for a paper to have authors listed in order of seniority, but that has the consequence that when people see a junior faculty or graduate student listed as a third author, it's assumed that the grad student likely did most of the work or came up with the idea, and that the first author just reviewed it.
  7. Aug 12, 2010 #6


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    Practices vary with the field and possibly with time. When I was a grad student in experimental high-energy particle physics about thirty years ago, the usual practice was to list all collaborators on an experiment, in alphabetical order, regardless of who actually contributed significantly to any particular paper.

    When I started to work as a lowly grad student for my research group, which was part of a collaboration with about forty people at four institutions, my name started to appear on all our papers... alphabetically first! It felt a bit weird to see a citation to "J. Bell et al." for a paper that I had little or nothing to do with personally. Some of these were in Phys. Rev. D and Phys. Rev. Letters, too.
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2010
  8. Aug 12, 2010 #7
    Yes. One thing that's shocking is to go into a different field and see how different things are. It's like visiting another country. That's one reason that it's a good experience for the OP to get some experience publishing because you learn the rules of your field.

    This can involve some nit-picky silly things like how to format a references section and the fact that a references section is called references and not bibliography. Then there are the joys of LaTeX and margin and formatting rules, and how to correctly punctuate formulas.

    Then there are the arcane code words. How do you say "I think paper X stinks" ( i.e. X presented unusual results which have not been reproduced (cite other papers) and are inconsistent with the findings of the present paper.)

    A lot of it is silly stuff that gets in the way of "real work" but writing and reading papers is useful because it means that the "silly stuff" becomes second nature.

    I think one reason that experimental HEP publishes alphabetically is that some of these papers have hundreds of co-authors, and if you had to decide who goes first, you'd never get the paper out.

    Astrophysics theory is rather inconsistent. Usually it's by seniority although sometimes it's by actual amount of contribution. I can't think of any paper that is done alphabetically. Because it's inconsistent, the important thing is to get your name on a paper. The order is more or less irrelevant.
  9. Aug 12, 2010 #8


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    Not only is it good to have your name on a peer-reviewed published paper, if that publication is for Physical Review Letters all the more reason to put in the work to make it happen.

    When I was in grad school, my advisor's practice was to list
    • the senior grad student first,
    • then post-docs, junior grad students, and/or our permanent staff researcher (order depended on level of their contribution to that project)
    • my advisor's name went last
    There were usually 3 to 5 names on most papers that our group published, and we were an AMO physics group -- in contrast to the big particle accelerator publications having many dozens of names.
  10. Aug 12, 2010 #9


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    In Cond Mat, it's similar. The grad student or postdoc that did most of the work is first author, and any other group members that assisted or shared responsibilities get listed in the order of their contribution. The PI is usually last author, unless there are collaborators from outside the group.
  11. Aug 13, 2010 #10
    Also remember that it isn't all about the value to other people. It's good for you and your development, too. Writing a paper is a painful process, and getting a chance to start to understand how the system works at undergraduate level is a great experience. If you're involved in the writing itself, you'll also get a great chance to hone your writing skills. Papers need to be concise and have a good understanding of the literature - both very useful skills for you to have.

    So, it isn't just about what having a publication will say to other people - it's also about what it means for your development. Of course, these skills are things you would be able to talk about at an interview - but just having the publication will also give a further level of assumed competency.
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