Academia Q: Is it okay if a PhD student’s work seems insignificant compared to others’?

My answer to a question from Academia Stack Exchange:

To suggest an answer, based on personal experience and experience of my friends: I propose an illustration on how the 3 key variables in student’s cognition, usually evolve during PhD studies (including completion of the thesis and peer-reviewed article publication), below. On the graph we have *t* axis for time period, orthogonal axis for relative value of the variables over time and: the psychological milestone of the PhD research.

So, in your cognition there are variables:

  • Cr – confidence in your research, i.e. that you’ll successfully complete the research, defend the thesis and get the PhD. diploma
  • Rs – your impression on significance of your research in the relevant field and relative to the significance of the related works.
  • |Rw| – aggregated knowledge about fundamental and recent research approaches / works / proposals, i.e. number of related works you reviewed and really understood, in all relevant aspects

The interpretation of the graph:

– After you formulate the research directions and initial draft, there is typical illusion that your work would have huge impact in the field i.e. that your contribution will become regular reference in future review articles in the field. Of course, such high value of *CrCompound recognition - one of three fundamental natural language processing tasks...* is just product of enthusiasmic-peak & ignorance on relevant works.
– As you review and practically re-evaluate more and more of related research, *Rs* will continue to drop, however, you’ll get better understating what is **big** and what **tiny** contribution in the field. i.e. the precision of your impression on *Rs* will rise.

The ultimate outcome of the whole game is function of criterion:

– Would you reach the psychological milestone of your PhD research, before *CrCompound recognition - one of three fundamental natural language processing tasks...* breaks you down, causing you to leave the studies?

So, if you are still worried if your research is / will be / significant enough – you are on the left part of the *t* axis. Therefore, what you have to do: continue to dig and study related research — as it would, beside discussed above, provide you with ideas how to adjust and/or re-frame your research to fit what seems to be **ok** significance.


Or, to provide simple answer: yes, it is ok (compared to research articles, published in journals with IF > 1.0).
But, if the law on postgraduate studies / the statute of your university / PhD. studies / is anything similar to my case (or in general to European standards) – you should think on how to produce a research article (focused on a chapter from PhD. thesis), that should be “in the league” with related research article — maybe not in the top, but in the same general cluster.

Hope this helps 🙂

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