Friday 12 September 2014


Is there any special merit in being productive? Is it important to write many papers (as opposed to good ones)? Let's assume you somewhow manage to write twice as many papers as the average postdoc in some time period - what does that make you? Cheap. The people funding you get twice as much bang for their buck. But it does not make you a genius.

Of course, research excellence is often coupled to productivity and that is why there is a rationale for looking at the length of publication lists etc. But putting in long unpaid hours just to write one or two extra (mediocre) papers is not particularly beneficial. There are by far enough papers produced all the time and there are enough PhDs seeking jobs. So why should one do the work and write all the papers?

Anyway, that is what I tell myself when I start getting stressed out about not working enough. There are in fact two points: First, overworking may in fact lower your productivity. Number crunching all day won't help you if you don't sit back, relax and think about what it all means. Second, what if a successful academic career really requires you to work all day and stress out about things you think are useless? Then, it's time to change to industry and at least get paid appropriately.


Anonymous said...

Productivity is, as you highlighted, a matter of relativity.

If being productive means it will yield a relative result to a separate task in need of productivity - well there's the reason why productivity is important.

Felix said...

Of course, putting in a lot of work to produce that one masterpiece or to complete urgent work - that makes sense.

But if it is just about producing many independent things, then all you are doing is working for two people (or more) on the salary of one.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, it's not that obvious in the productivity world especially in individual based ones.

For example, a popular adage is to cut down that one masterpiece into smaller tasks.

Sounds like it would work...until it doesn't work and you just spend time racing towards many independent things among which may count towards a piece but not really that effective a boost for forming a masterpiece and there's so many road blocks and interruptions that would destroy the flow.

Urgent work is another red herring. In the productivity world, they say all these things "like have only 3 tasks a day" which works in collaborative environments but might not be that easy when setting up a personal life and having things like groceries to work with.

What I'm trying to convey is that producing many independent things goes relatively with putting in a lot of work to produce that one masterpiece as well as completing urgent work in the productivity world.

I wish there was some way to separate these things but unfortunately producing many independent things is the macguffin of the productivity world. No one really goes against it but everyone sidesteps it one way or another as they give tips on how to pursue important work whether it's about going against it without stating it ala sticky notes or going with it without stating it ala time management tips.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking on this subject as well, lately. For me, thinking on it helps me relieve some of my depression.

Frankly, I'm concerned with my future career; I'm a postdoc ... with no first author publications for 2014. My first assignment this year was a programming one; no one really sees a way of getting a paper out of it.

My second is ... well, the project has been run so poorly that the goalposts set before keep shifting. Translation: lots of work completed, no chance of a publication this year.

But what have I accomplished? My programming expanded the capabilities of a critical piece of software used in our research. Essentially, the software's computable chemical space is now virtually infinite. We're getting results now that are far superior and novel to anything achieved before.

What about my role in my most recent project? It's a large collaborative project. I've taken the time to meticulously comb the literature. As a result, I've pointed out previously published experimental results that were overlooked by the rest of the team, results that are now spearheading the entire direction of the project.

I've performed highly valuable research over the past year. Other team members, people with decades more experience in this field, are beginning to defer to me regarding the synthetic leads we'll produce.

What do I have to show for it? Nothing on paper.

More than likely, I won't receive another postdoc position. My publication list isn't long enough. No one wants a postdoc who went a year with no first author papers.

It may be that I will have to leave research, maybe even chemistry all together. It's a very depressing though. I love chemistry.

I hope you'll understand my decision to remain anonymous.

Felix said...

Sure there is always the problem that there is so much "behind-the-scenes" work neccessary, which does not get published.