Publish or perish.

Update/Note: This isn’t my most sunny post- trigger warnings may apply. In fact, if you’re thinking along these lines (especially if it’s more than just a temporary low that everyone goes through) and haven’t spoken to someone about it- a family member, close friend or counselor- you might want to. Despite doing better, I can still get in this depressive mindset and feel like giving up on life at times- and it does sound like this in my own head. I recover more quickly from these moods than I used to- in fact, this was a near permanent state for several years in a row. As a friend of mine said, “I won’t let anyone talk about you like this, including you”. Exactly. I still don’t have all the answers to what to do other than work hard and become the best I can at what I’m working on now and being open to opportunity. Stay well, friends/readers. This blog is supposed to help people- through telling my own story of getting to a healthier place in my brain.

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Publish or perish. The words every academic has spoken, knows by heart and uses as a sort of oath. Publications are the currency of the academic world. You can never have too few. The acceptable number does vary by field but the only not acceptable number is 0.

I’ll admit it. I have 0 publications as a postdoc. I feel worthless. I’m working on one now that is not exciting, not groundbreaking and in my opinion not even worth the server space or the publisher. What have I been doing in my postdoc? Mostly failing. Being perfectionist, which is a real problem. Perfectionism is good fuel for depression, which is also a problem. I’ve been working on a lot of things that just don’t seem to work out as stories- and because I’m a perfectionist, I don’t want to contribute something that’s just plain wrong because I made a stupid mistake. That’s probably my fault too. Make your own luck. Chance favors the prepared mind- all that good stuff- perfectionism and depression are not good for making your own luck or preparing your mind or opening up to anyone for that matter.

Would I dwell on this so much if I had a lot more going on in life otherwise? Probably not. But I work so much because I want to get something real done and haven’t been able to- at the expense of everything else I might spend my time doing. Maybe some time off would make me more productive- or taking time to develop other interests. Mono-focus on work isn’t healthy, even in science. As others have pointed out, science is a job- knowledge worker- and not a religious calling; even if it seems that way sometimes (and the marketing hype of becoming a scientist says so too).

0 publications. I’m worthless. I might as well perish. Tragically, I imagine some scientists take that literally (even ones who have published and don’t feel their record is good enough)- seeing no path to success- since not publishing means you’re worthless not just in academia, but anywhere else too (how do you show you were productive otherwise?). Nothing else matters as much. Teaching & bringing molecular bio to where it hasn’t been before by developing a whole new class? Who the F cares? Science outreach? Nobody cares. Writing a blog? Nope. Brewing your own (mediocre) beer? Running a half marathon? Ha! And ha! Being a (mostly) decent human and trying to support/celebrate your friends’ successes in life? So ridiculous. Your friends have other friends, they’d get on fine without you. Getting your professional society to advertise a conference hash tag? Ha! No one noticed. 0 publications = worthless human, period.

Guess I should quit whining and get back to the lab and forget a life. Because until I publish something I’m completely worthless as a human and may as well perish*.

Ever on and on.

*No, I won’t do anything to actively make this happen. This reflects how I feel on my worst days- in my worst moments. I do really worry about myself sometimes- but a lot of what I do is in service of surviving- exercise, taking a day off work (on a weekend- not a weekday) and yes, trying to finally do good science, which is hard when you’re not depressed, harder when you are.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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