Postdoc Risk-Reward: How Valuable is a Top-Tier Publication?

One of the most challenging aspects of performing research is knowing when to pull the plug on a project.  This is particularly true for postdocs, who have a limited amount of time to obtain the results that will act as a springboard for their career.  After graduate school, many of us walk into our postdoc dreaming about the huge paper we’re going to publish and the flood of career opportunities and funding awards that will follow.  No wonder it can be tough to wake up from that fantasy…

We support Shirley Wu and chemist99 in questioning the relevance of journal impact factors and their relation to why we still publish scientific papers.  While the field is experimenting with alternative author ranking systems and journal metrics, the reality is that publishing an article in a “top-tier” journal still means something to funding agencies and future employers.  As a result, it has value to us as well – but at what cost?

Chasing a homerun paper can be a very dangerous game.  At some point, even the top-tier paper isn’t enough to justify the risk of continuing to pursue it.  A single Science or Nature paper published after a 25-year postdoc probably isn’t as impressive as one published after just two years.  In fact, any paper after two years would probably look better.  While a 25-year postdoc may be far-fetched, we all know sixth or seventh year postdocs who are just “one figure away” from a huge story.  The longer that chase goes on, the harder it is to call it quits since nobody wants to feel like they just wasted eight years of their life.

So when does the chase itself become a waste- regardless of the outcome?  Exactly how important is a top-tier paper?  As new PhD graduates initiate their postdoctoral fellowships, what would you say is more valuable for their career development?


What is more valuable to your career?

View Results

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7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. MadGenius

    wrote on August 2, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Interesting poll result, but don't you expect to have more than 1 paper in 3 years of post-doc? What about grad students? And what do people consider a 'mid-tier' journal?

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on August 2, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    You'd certainly hope to have more than one, but to simplify the choices, we made it one paper only per scenario. I'd guess most people would have enough results after three years to put out a solid paper, but some of them will hold the story to try to build on it for a Nature/Science/etc. paper.

    This could apply to grad students as well, but I think there's more pressure to perform as a postdoc as it relates to your long-term career. Having an average graduate career is not necessarily a death nell for your career- you can recover in a postdoc. However, having a terrible postdoc usually means doing another one or not getting the job you want.

    'Mid-tier journal' is definitely subjective- I think about the journals in a field that are a little more specialized (Biochemistry, Journal of Virology, etc.) – still publish great work – but don't get the broad readership and exposure of the well-known 800-lb gorillas (Nature, Science, Cell, PNAS, etc…).

  3. Dr Becca

    wrote on August 2, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    I would love to meet the post-doc who got hired after 3 years with a single mid-tier publication.

  4. caro

    wrote on August 2, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    i don't know what field you are in, but it's not unusual in biology/biomedical sciences to just have 1 first author paper in mid-tiered journal in 3 years……depends on the type of experiment.

  5. When Do Top-Tier Publications Lose that Lovin' Feeling? | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 9, 2010 at 10:54 am

    […] everything from job offers to funding awards to ego boosts.  However, in last weeks’ poll (How Valuable is a Top-Tier Publication) an overwhelming majority of scientists thought it was a better career move to finish a postdoc in […]

  6. guest

    wrote on March 19, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    It take 3-5 years to find something new and find functional relevance. if it doesnot get publish in nature/science/cell, then no body cares. The question on your productivity will be marked not how novel your work is.

  7. Matt

    wrote on February 12, 2013 at 6:43 am

    Hate to rain on your parade, but the 6-year post-doc with the Cell paper will win every time

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