My PhD Publication Stats

May 12, 2024
And if they perform each of those tasks perfectly, they will be rewarded with more.
- Sabrina Orah Mark, Fuck the Bread, The Bread is Over.

As a PhD student, I often tried to reduce my existence down to a single number: how many papers I'd published. I've officially graduated now, after six years and change, so I'm reflecting on numbers like this and what they mean.

Paper submissions

I've had 13 full-length submissions rejected. I published two full-length papers of note during my PhD. The first one was published in my fifth year, and I was just notified of the second one's acceptance a few days ago, five months after my defense. Which means I defended with only one major publication.

Full-Length Half-Length
Accepted Rejected Accepted Rejected
2 13 2 2

I think that younger me, the me that enrolled in the PhD, would be disappointed. He expected glory. But, in truth, he was a completely different person. True, he was less jaded and perhaps less cynical. Also true: he had absolutely no idea what he was signing up for. He didn't know what kind of glory he was pursuing. He was convinced he would change (save?) the world and also that doing so would involve blockchains.

And maybe succeeding at research is about changing the world, but only in some vague, long-term, abstract sense. In a much truer, day-to-day sense, success in research is about convincing a small group of people in your sub-field that the work you've already done has value. If you do then your work is published, and the rest of the world can see it and finally start enjoying post-blockchain nirvana.

And publication success isn't vague. It's not "get a good job". It's concrete: publish at least X papers, each in one of these select few top-tier conferences. You currently only have Y papers published. Therefore you are Y/X a complete person. You know precisely how you measure up every morning, every time someone asks you "how's school going?", every time you get a paper rejection, every time one of your peer's papers is accepted.

Good for science, but maybe bad for you. Because, unfortunately, it can start to feel like you're trying to convince a group of people that you have value; that you are a worthwhile human being; that you deserve to exist. You don't possess these qualities inherently; they must be earned.

Active & abandoned projects

I've worked on four major projects that never saw the light of day and likely never will (five if I abandon this project that was just rejected once more).

In Progress Published Abandoned
1 3 4

Developing multiple 10K lines-of-code projects that no one will ever use or even hear about gets pretty old. People don't use projects that are published either, but at least they hear about them. If I could go back, I would treat all of my research code like production code (within reason). Even if, at the end of the day, it's just LARPing as a software engineer, it would have given me concrete goals and achievements for my projects. Less living and dying by jittery paper reviews.

But I don't mind much, anymore. Half of that not-minding is something like wisdom; the other half is exhaustion. Maybe that was the point of the whole thing, to dull the ego by exhaustion. Unfortunately, a side effect of ego exhaustion is that when something good happens it's hard to feel good. You're too tired.

The end

A friend of mine once said, "Don't forget, finishing the PhD is the start of your career, not the end." I repeat that to myself often. But... it was hard. Do I regret it? I am not the same person that signed up. If that me knew what would follow, he probably would have done something else. But that is not exactly regret.

Graduate school beat into me something I suspect I was sorely lacking: humility. The knowledge that I can't do everything, that hard work is not sufficient for external success, and so much more. Would I have signed up for that six-year beating as an arrogant 23-year-old? Probably not. Would I trade it away? Probably not.

So I cannot say that graduate school was worthless, but I also cannot generally recommend graduate school. I almost didn't make it, and so much of the education was about accepting that "not making it" would have been OK.

No grit

And so this is decidedly not about how if you just keep going and push through the pain, everything will work out. It's not about how I succeeded against all odds, and it was hard, and look at me!

Because, as I finish the journey, I don't feel exalted; I feel dazed, weary. Like a battered ship returning to port after years at sea. Onlookers can only see the end of the journey and want to celebrate. But I just want to kneel on solid ground; to tend the parts of my garden I've neglected for too long.

But, also... I listen more now. I ask simple questions, because I am no longer ashamed of not already knowing the answers. Learning still feels good. My writing has improved. I still like to write code. I have done some work I feel somewhat good about. I have lost some arrogance and gained some confidence, the quiet kind buoyed by failure and pain; the kind that knows how to find joy despite such inevitabilities.

The cynic tells me I wrote this to convince you that despite my failures, I still have value. I hope, instead, that I wrote it because perhaps you know someone struggling with graduate school or something else, someone who needs to hear that they are already worthwhile, regardless of their own stats. Tell them that they are. Regardless of whether they drop out, keep going, take years off, or never publish anything.

I look around. I’ve landed where I am.
- Sabrina Orah Mark, Fuck the Bread, The Bread is Over.