A high-impact paper from your post-doc

When I started as a post-doc I felt that this was the period in which it needed to happen: get at least one high-impact paper. I had the experience from my PhD, and thought that I knew what to do and how to do it. I knew that this is the period during which you can dedicate most of your time to research, because after this (with which I mean if I get a tenure track position) a lot of time will go to teaching and managing other people. So this is the time in which it needs to happen: I felt like I needed to get at least one (but preferably more) high-impact papers. And this idea was reinforced by talking to more senior people around me. A couple years ago I talked to a PI in my home country who basically said: “Don’t bother coming back and think about getting a TT position unless you have at least 4 papers in journals such as Nature Neuroscience or higher”. ‘Alright’, I thought to myself: ‘ I’m on it!’
So I started off like crazy: learning a new technique, trying to get stuff going as fast as I can. But as I’ve written before; I started to feel a bit unhappy about the whole thing. And now I don’t know if it is going to happen: am I getting data that are interesting and sexy enough for that high-impact paper? Or are they going to be ‘just’ decent data that are going to go in a well-respected but lower-impact factor journal. And is that going to make or break my career?
So I was going to end this blog post by saying that I had just decided to enjoy doing experiments, not worry too much and just see what kind of data would come out and how that would turn into a (couple of) paper(s). And then I heard back from a post-doc grant that I wrote a long while back, that finally notified people today. I didn’t get it, and this was already grant #4 that I applied for and didn’t get. And now I don’t know if just enjoying doing experiments and being in the lab is going to be enough…
So what do you think: do you NEED one or more high-impact papers from your post-doc to make it?


Filed under academia, disgruntled postdoc, grant writing, publishing papers

19 responses to “A high-impact paper from your post-doc

  1. 4 first author C/N/S family papers seems extreme

  2. Agreed, 4 first author papers in glamormags seems a bit overkill.

  3. But what about one or two? Is that necessary or are there examples of people that 'made it' without?

  4. Angela

    Depends on the field a bit I think and the place you are applying too.

  5. Absolutely not. Let's adopt one very narrow definition of making it, getting a tenure track position at an R1 institution (and for many people 'making it' can involve other outcomes). In this case, you just need to convince the committee that you will be successful.

    And to them successful means supporting yourself with research grants, being a good department citizen and teacher, and doing legitimate + interesting research.

    The high profile paper is only relevant because it's a pretty good predictor of success. But I know many people who got jobs with fascinating data (that data often later wound up in a high profile place), or with a great new technique that promised to yield many mid-level results, or just a reputation as the king/queen of some new subfield or new technique that seemed gnarly, or friends in the right places.

    Having extramural grant $$ is also a good predictor of success. In my appproximation, a K99~=S/N paper and NRSA ~= neuron/jneurosci paper.

    Finally, every search committee has a convoluted and unguessable set of needs and wants, and they will often take someone who fits those needs, even without the high profile paper. This is why it pays to apply to all positions that seem even vaguely relevant and why it sucks to have to find a job in a certain country or even certain region of the USA.

    I think that having a CV that builds a narrative and that points towards future success is the most important thing (and I speak as someone who definitely did not do this, and did not really understand it until later). So do what I say not what I did 😉

    (Having said that, I think that one J Neurosci paper would be a minimum.)

  6. The need for >1 high impact paper is what is making me question the staying in academia (if not science as a whole). I don't know if I want it bad enough to sacrifice other things (mainly time with Kiddo and Dr. Man) to get a TT position.

  7. DrugMonkey

    There are no absolutes. There are things that make certain outcomes easier or more likely but never any guarantees. As NPB says, this presumes you allow for a range of geographic locations….

  8. 4 1st author CNS papers in the course of one post-doc? I don't even see how that's possible, let alone required. I think honestly, if I saw 4 1st author CNS papers on a post-doc's CV I'd be suspicious, not impressed.

    I basically agree with everything Neuropolarbear said. There's no single thing that's going to guarantee you a TT job–it's going to be some combination of papers, funding, and your personal narrative. Strengths in one area can compensate for others, but yeah, probably one paper in IF>7, plus a few others would be minimum.

  9. No absolutes, but my impression is that what matters is 1) Pedigree, 2) At least one high impact paper, 3) Funding or evidence of past funding.

    None of these is particularly good… especially since 3 is favored by 1 & 2, and 2 is heavily favored by 1. But all of these processes are filled with self-reinforcing feedback loops.

  10. Thanks for all your comments and insights! I totally realize that there is no equation set in stone that says that for example 2 papers + 1 grant = TT position.
    Writing this post did make me realize that I want to do research because I like doing it and not because I want or need that high-impact paper. It's nice if the paper follows because I did research that I enjoyed but it's not the most important thing in the world (or is this too idealistic….?)

  11. Yes this is what I struggle with too: do I want to immerse myself completely in science to try to be as good as I can or do I want a more balanced life? And if I choose the latter: what am I going to do? I'm sure I'll write a lot more about this in the future.

  12. “or is this too idealistic….?”

    Not at all! It's the only reason to be a scientist. Setting your heart on things like publication venue or prestigious fellowship is the #1 source of misery among grad students and postdocs, I think.

    I go through bouts of severe anxiety about TT job prospects and dual-career mayhem. I'm 1 for 3 on the criteria I listed above, which bodes poorly. Lately I've decided to just try and enjoy my last year or so of being a completely unfettered researcher doing self-directed science that I love, which is a fantastic job, and to not worry about the career cliff/wall ahead.

    Geography is tricky…. We are globally flexible but a little picky within the US/Canada. Spouse in particular needs an international airport, and pop<500K starts to feel grim. But even fantasizing about having those criteria is manufactured worry, the real killer is jobs for 2.

  13. Anonymous

    My concern is also about papers per unit time: is one Neuron/Nature Neuroscience level paper (after 5 years of postdoc) enough to offset a low total number of publications? I also worry about the make/break career aspect…

  14. GMP

    I am in the physical sciences, so my perspective may be useless here, but here goes. In my field, it is expected to show constant productivity. Less than, say, 2 papers per year on the postdoc is not good; if they are Phys Rev Lett or higher (like Nature or Nature Progeny), that's great, but it's not necessary. I would say that having only 1 or 2 GlamourMag papers to show after several years of a postdoc is not enough.

    My postdoc tells me that the people who have been recently hired at the places where he applied all had 30+ papers total from PhD plus a longish postdoc. Postdocs don't typically write grants in the physical sciences, so that's different, too.

  15. Paper number is completely field dependent, even within the life sciences.

  16. In Sweden you normally need 3-4 journal papers to get your PhD degree.

  17. Yes it was the same in my university: you need 4 publishable chapters in your thesis and one of them needed to be published to be able to defend. But there's of course a large variety between how much stuff goes into one paper. One glamour mag paper may contain as much science as 5 lower impact factor papers…

  18. In Sweden most of the papers should be published at the defense.

  19. Pingback: Is it necessary to have a high impact factor paper for a job outside academia? | In Baby Attach Mode

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