Friday, May 9, 2014

Scaling the publication obstacle: the graduate student’s Achilles’ heel

There is no doubt that graduate school can be extremely stressful and overwhelming. Increasingly, evidence points to these grad school stressors contributing to mental health problems (articles here and here). Many aspects of grad school contribute to self-doubt and unrelenting stress: is there a job for me after? am I as smart as everyone else? is what I’m doing even interesting?

But what seems to really exacerbate grad school stress is the prospect of trying to publish*. The importance of publishing can’t be dismissed. To be a scientist, you need to publish. There are differing opinions about what makes a scientist (e.g., is it knowledge, job title, etc.), but it is clear that if you are not publishing, then you are not contributing to science. This is what grad students hear, and it is easy to see how statements like this do not help with the pressure of grad school.

There are other aspects of the grad school experience that are important, like teaching, taking courses, outreach activities, and serving on University committees or in leadership positions. These other aspects can be rewarding because they expand the grad school experience. There is also the sense that they are under your control and the rewards are more directly influenced by your efforts. Here then, publishing is different. The publication process does not feel like it is under your control and that the rewards are not necessarily commensurate with your efforts.

Cartoon by Nick Kim, Massey University, Wellington, accessed here

Given the publishing necessity, how then can grad students approach it with as little trauma as possible? The publication process will be experienced differently by different people, some seem like they can shrug off negative experiences while others internalize them, with negative experiences gnawing away at their confidence. There is no magic solution to making the publishing experience better, but here are some suggestions and reassurances.

1) It will never be perfect! I find myself often telling students to just submit already. There is a tendency to hold on to a manuscript and read and re-read it. Part of this is the anxiety of actually submitting it, and procrastination is a result of anxiety. But often students say that it doesn’t feel ready, or that they are unhappy with part of the discussion, or that it is not yet perfect. Don’t ever convince yourself that you will make it perfect –you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment. Referees ALWAYS criticize, even when they say a paper is good. There is always room for improvement and you should view the review process as part of the process that improves papers. If you think of it this way, then criticisms are less personal (i.e., why didn’t they think it was perfect too?) and feel more constructive, and you are at peace with submitting something that is less than perfect.

2) Let's dwell on part of the first point: reviewers ALWAYS criticize. It is part of their job. It is not personal. Remember, the reviewers are putting time and effort into your paper, and their comments should be used to make the product better. Reviewers are very honest and will tell you exactly what could be done to improve a manuscript. They are not attacking you personally, but rather assessing the manuscript. 

3) Building on point 2, the reviewers may not always be correct or provide the best advice. It is OK to state why you disagree with them. You should always appreciate their efforts (unless they are unprofessional), but you don’t have to always agree with them.

4) Not every paper is a literature masterpiece. Effective scientific communication is sometimes best served by very concise and precise papers. If you have an uncomplicated, relatively simple experiment, don’t make more complex by writing 20 pages. Notes, Brevia, Forum papers are all legitimate contributions.

5) Not every paper should be a Science or Nature paper (or whatever the top journals are in a given subdiscipline). Confirmatory or localized studies are helpful and necessary. Large meta-analyses and reviews are not possible without published evidence. Students should try to think how their work is novel or broadly general (this is important for selling yourself later on), but it is ok to acknowledge that your paper is limited in scope or context, and to just send it to the appropriate journal. It takes practice to fit papers to the best journals, so ask colleagues where they would send it. This journal matching can save time and trauma.

6) And here is the important one: rejection is ok, natural, and normal. We all get rejections. What I mean by this is that we all get rejections. Your rejection is not abnormal, you don’t suck more than others, and your experience has been experienced by all the best scientists. When your paper is reviewed, and then rejected, there is usually helpful information that should be useful in revising your work to submit elsewhere. Many journals are inundated with papers and are looking for reasons to reject. In the journal I edit, we accept only about 18% of submissions, and so it doesn’t take much to reject a paper. This is unfortunate, but currently unavoidable (though with the changing publishing landscape, this norm may change). Rejection is hard, but don’t take it personally, and feel free to express your rage to your friends.

Publishing is a tricky, but necessary, business for scientists. When you are having problems with publishing, don’t internalize it. Instead complain about it to your friends and colleagues. They will undoubtedly have very similar experiences. Students can be hesitant to share rejections with other students because they feel inferior, but sharing can be therapeutic. When I was a postdoc at NCEAS, the postdocs would share quotes from their worst rejection letters. What would have normally been a difficult, confidence-bashing experience, became a supportive, reassuring experience.

Publishing is necessary, but also very stressful and potentially adding to low-confidence and a feeling that grad school is overwhelming. I hope that the pointers above can help make the experience less onerous. But when you do get that acceptance letter telling you that your paper will be published, hang on to that. Celebrate and know that you have been rewarded for your hard work, but move on from the rejections.

*I should state that my perspective is from science, and my views on publishing are very much informed by the publishing culture in science. I have no way of knowing if the pressures in the humanities or economics are the same for science students.


  1. I think this advice extends beyond grad school :-)

  2. I think one of the things that makes publishing so stressful is the tension between your #1 and #6. Because journals just need a small thing to seize upon for rejection, it really IS important that the manuscript be as perfect as possible. It sucks to get rejected for something that is reasonably fixable (which I hear seems be becoming more common).

    1. Hi Margaret,
      Agreed. The idea is to find the line between good enough and perfect, and to not spin your tires try to get a single paragraph perfect. Papers are not usually rejected because of a paragraph in the discussion. Once the methods and analyses are the best they can be, the rest just needs to be good enough (i.e., cite the relevant literature, connect the important dots, etc).