Overcoming a Poor Publication Record


Dear Career Doctor,I did my PhD at Oxbridge in the 1990s, a time when working with animals other than rodents was becoming increasingly difficult and expensive in the UK. As a result we had to abandon what we really wanted to do, and so only one paper has been published so far. Two more (rather weak ones) are in the wings. Both the published paper and one other have the postdoc as the first author because the lab follows the old-fashioned alphabetical order principle. Thus despite the fact that the published work was based on my dissertation, there is no indication of my major contribution. This is quite simply because I had just arrived from India and didn't know what to expect.My first postdoc was at US Ivy League University. There I spent a year getting the lab up and running, but at the end of my second year I had to leave rather hastily as the university administration had bungled my US taxes. I do have a paper from this postdoc, and lots of data (that we are still struggling to comprehend).I am now in a brilliant lab in Canada, one of the best in the field. But this lab produces papers rather slowly, some taking up to 5 years, and my track record is causing me serious worries. Being Indian, the only grants available to me are if I become a faculty member here in Canada, or I move back to the US or the UK as a postdoc again.I am working on a new technique which can revolutionise (I hope) the field of in vivo techniques, but that is still a long way off. Meanwhile I cannot become faculty with a track record that is so poor.What can I do to get out of this quagmire?Mas

Dear Mas,

I'm sorry that your career has been stalled by problems with publishing your work leaving you with less evidence of your research capability than you feel you deserve. You are right to recognise that securing a faculty position is going to be particularly difficult with your track record, and however harsh that may sound you first need to ask yourself how much you want to pursue your dream of academia.

It is perhaps easier in academia than any other career to follow a path without really taking time to work out where you are going. A first degree goes well, so a PhD is the natural next step. The work is interesting, so a postdoc follows. Then you start to think this is all that you are suited to, so another postdoc seems the right thing to do. ? Then suddenly there's nowhere to go. Sadly there are no guarantees that even a good publishing record will lead to a secure academic post in any of the countries you mention.

Take some time to look critically at academia and yourself and make an objective decision about your mutual suitability. You should be approaching your current and former supervisors for feedback on your potential for an academic career. I'm sure that some academics will tell you (for your own benefit) that your chances are small (or worse), but ask them for advice or alternative ideas.

Alternatives to Academe

The good news is that there are alternatives between banging your head on the academic brick wall and leaving research altogether. In my previous column I referred to a change in the relationship between academic research and the commercial environment in the UK, a trend that applies equally across the pond. Look at the Innovations Foundation at the University of Toronto or the Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise unit at the University of Ottawa to see how this global trend is changing research in Canada. These ongoing changes may offer a real opportunity for you, particularly if your belief in the potential revolutionary impact of your research is well placed. So give more thought to the potential applications of your research and the industry areas that may be interested in it.

Of course there are many alternatives and you'll find plenty of resources right here on Next Wave, but in the rest of this column I'll concentrate on ways in which you may be able to pull your career back onto the tenure track.

If you're sure that academia is the right path for you, then you need to stop the drift right now. Set yourself some achievable goals and review your progress regularly (at least every month) to ensure that your career is developing in the right direction. Try to set a few clear objectives to work towards for the next 6 months, and write down in a calendar or diary the times at which you will review your progress.

Learn From Your Experience

To tackle the heart of your problem you must take control of your situation and learn from the problems you've had to date. Identify those elements that you can directly affect (i.e., writing your own manuscripts or preparing funding proposals even if they need significant revision); those elements that you can influence (perhaps the impact of your work in joint publications or the direction of your research in your wider group); and the areas over which you have little or no power (the order of names on publications and eligibility for certain sources of funding).

Concentrate your effort on the actions which will most improve your situation. Ideally these will be consistent with at least some of the demands of your boss, but if not, you need to find or make time for them, even though this probably translates into a significant increase in your workload.

You have learnt the hard way that the only person really committed to your development is yourself and the key measures of that development in academic science are publications and research income. Therefore your first objective is to look back over the work you have done already and identify data that can be published--you mention two papers from your PhD which are still "in the wings". Although you are thousands of miles away from the lab in which the work was done, if you want your contribution to be accurately reflected, you must be involved in the preparation of the manuscript.

Adding to the Publications List

Could you draw attention to your concerns with your former supervisor by sending an amended manuscript in which your work has more impact? Merely voicing your concerns may not be enough given the traditional approach to writing that the lab adopts. PhD students are often "bumped down" the author list, which is frustrating, but as it is commonly known, this doesn't have the same negative impact as it would with later papers. If you can't change the way your PhD research has been used, this experience has shown that you need to present your work more effectively in the future.

I would also try to get more out of your work in the States. Do you think there is anyone else as committed to its publication as you are? If so, contact them and work together to draw out any material which may form a paper. If not, again you need to take the lead on this. This may mean you'll have to work fairly autonomously to prepare the manuscripts--a skill that you definitely need to develop if you are planning to remain in academia--but remember, it is doubtful anyone understands your work as well as you.

You will also have to bear the brunt of the anonymous refereeing process. Referees can be quite brutal, so don't be disheartened. By going through this process you will learn a great deal which will help you as you write up other work. I don't underestimate the effort required to take raw data to publication, but if the work has potential it is important to disseminate it whilst it is still reasonably recent.

Finally, the publication time scale (5 years) that you refer to in your current lab isn't unusual in academic circles, but there are often quicker publication channels available. Many esteemed journals have sister publications for rapid communications--could you write brief papers for these? Can you take control of your current work by focusing on experiments with a better chance of early publication or getting involved in related projects which may lead to papers more quickly? If your group tends to publish in high-impact journals then they might argue that in the long run your career is better served by this approach in terms of the reputation you will build. You need to balance this against your short-term need to boost your publication record--in 5 years you may no longer be in academia.

Generating Research Income

The next barrier to your career path is the other fundamental measure of academic success--research income, so therein lies your second objective. Institutions now look for evidence of success in securing substantial research income when making academic appointments, which is a Catch-22 situation for most postdocs. You have again identified the problem in that you cannot apply for the most generally available funds, so you need to look for alternatives.

As an Indian national working in Canada, you should investigate the fellowships available from the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the programmes managed by the British Council's Scholarship, Training and Exchanges team in India. If you don't appear to meet the eligibility criteria for the programmes on these Web sites, I'd suggest you contact the organisations directly--the staff that manages them may be able to offer you useful advice.

You should also look for help within your current institution. Identify the administrative support and advice that is available to researchers (as an example, check out the services offered by the Research Grants Office at McGill University), and make an appointment to discuss your background and particular issues. Many universities are familiar with a huge range of funding bodies, researchers of all nationalities, and matching up research interests to funding sources.

By now you should be leading the direction of your work and developing your own research agenda. Discuss these ideas with your supervisor in anticipation of preparing a research proposal. This will need a clear sense of purpose and anticipated outcomes. The description of your future research must be convincing and credible. Even if you don't feel ready to apply for your own funding, you need to be developing autonomous ideas for future work.

Raising Your Profile

You also need to build your reputation and raise your profile. Again, look at how other scientists promote themselves and have built their reputations--can you adopt some of these approaches as you begin to network more widely? Conferences can be a particularly effective means to both disseminate your work (once it has been published or at least accepted for publication) and promote yourself to potential research partners. The process of applying to speak at prestigious conferences mirrors elements of grant applications so you will have a chance to develop these skills. Important scientific meetings will attract successful academics and you should make a point of talking to them, perhaps even sending reprints of your work, and discussing their own careers with them. They may be willing to share their insights into academic success, have ideas for funding, or be interested in working with you.

I would also suggest that you contact your professional body and ask for their advice. Many scientific organisations run competitions for researchers at different levels which may also be a means of promoting yourself, raising your credibility, and finding funding.

For more good advice on career management including some specific ideas on making your job work for you, check out the Virtual Career Coach. Part of the Windmills Programme, it includes seven tactics for career success, including career boosting. A book I've found useful is The Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School Through Tenure by John A. Goldsmith, John Komlos, Penny Schine Gold--and I liked the friendly, easy-to-read style.

Finally, I hope that you can also recognise the successes in your career to date. Despite your self-confessed naivety and lack of publications, you have managed to work in three highly prestigious institutions. Although you have had problems working overseas, your scientific potential and credibility have overcome the rigorous immigration barriers of three different countries. You have prevailed over a series of research hurdles and maintained your confidence and commitment to your work. If you can take control of your research outputs and apply your tenacity and motivation to managing your career, I'm sure you'll pull yourself out of your current quagmire.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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