That’s the truth. No one cares about what you’re doing in your PhD, no one, no one!1 But don’t be sad, This is actually a very comfortable truth. I only came to this realization after a while. Once you get it, then you will start looking at your PhD journey with different eyes. I believe that acquiring self-awareness of this fact is crucial. It facilitates enjoying the process of making science without paying too much attention to its actual impact and relevance. At the end of the day, a PhD is all about the journey, not the destination. This post tells you about the importance of fully embracing this mindset!

TODO
© Be like a toddler in a park, no one will notice it. Photo of Tessinparken, where my little son happily plays without caring about anything else.

A Comfortable Truth

Doing good research is about pushing the limits of human knowledge, little by little. For PhD students, it is a very necessary training before aspiring to become a professional researcher. PhD students are primarily constrained by time. Unfortunately, there is not an infinite amount of time to complete a PhD program. Moreover, research involves doing many things besides writing research papers. Sometimes “the limit to be pushed” turns out to be farther than expected. Time imposes a certain amount of pressure, but other forms of subjective pressure exist. In particular, I’m going to refer to peer pressure here.

Ultimately, everybody wants to be recognized by others as a successful person. Many studies have demonstrated that once people get enough money to live decently, more money will not make them happier. Only the recognition from the people around provides enough satisfaction. This imposes an unnecessary particular pressure on PhD students.2

Let’s do some quick maths. There is around 7.9 billion people in the world in 2022 (i.e., 7,700,000,000). I tried to find what is the average number of citations for a Computer Science paper, but I didn’t find it. So, I would say that (optimistically) this number is around 20. Thus, 20 / 7,700,000,000 = 385,000,000. This means that, on average, only one person in 385 million people (more than the total population of the U.S.A.) would ever be interested in your paper.3 It is likely that this person, who is concerned about your research field, will never thoroughly read your paper.

This happens because no one actually reads your paper because of a pure interest in it. The people that read research papers just do it because it is in her/him best interest (e.g., to fill the “Related Work” section of their own paper). But the same happens in written books. Most books are never read. And the world doesn’t seem to notice that.

Now let’s talk about presentations. As a PhD student, you probably feel stressed about presenting your work to the public. Even presentations for your research colleagues are sometimes perceived as a challenge. But the fact is that they are too busy with their own research. Researchers, especially your colleagues, don’t have the time and energy to understand your research. This also applies to conferences. People go there for networking, socialization, and to have a broad idea of what is going on in the field. If they get really interested in what someone is doing, then they will read the paper. Therefore, presentation-driven stress is futile. So don’t be stressed at all.

Finally, several universities include PhD courses in their curriculums. Students must pass these kinds of courses in order to accumulate a certain number of “credits.” There is no workaround, as this is part of the requirements to get a PhD4 Fortunately, no one cares about your performance on these courses! No even your supervisor nor the professor who teaches the course. Everyone knows that the essential task of a PhD student is to deliver novel and sound research.

Do you feel more comfortable now?

Detractors

In some research labs, there is a toxic feeling of competitiveness around. This is sometimes purposely incentivized by ambitious supervisors or very competitive assholes students. I think that competitiveness is a good thing in general, even for science. However, excessive competitiveness can be dangerous for some non-competitive and sensible students. So, if someone cares too much about your research, then you can assume that it is due to some obscure reasons (i.e., driven by envy or poor self-esteem). Just do not compete. Science is more about collaboration and less about individual achievements. Only you (and your supervisor) should actually care about your results.

On the other hand, sometimes, you might feel that you are wasting your PhD time. This happens to students with a low number of papers. It is demotivating. However, those that believe that having one or two papers is not enough to get a PhD, then that’s because they don’t know how science works. It took me three years to get my best paper accepted in a top Software Engineering journal. Good papers that challenge the status quou are more difficult to publish.

If you feel that you invested a lot of time writing a piece of paper that no one reads. A paper that is going to be only one more of the big pile of released papers every week in a journal. Don’t worry. Science seems to work as a manufacturing fabric these days. Papers are massively produced. Can you imagine what would happen if engineers that write code for a company, or those who assemble pieces of a car in a product line, got very sad about not making a unique piece? There would be chaos then. Don’t worry about the lack of uniqueness. No one does.

In summary, I firmly believe that a PhD is an academic exercise. It is a particular type of training to be a better professional in the future. If you disagree with me, let me know your reasons in the comments below 😉.

What to Do?

In short: stop caring about what you guess others may think about your research! Completely remove the fear of ridicule. Just there is no way to fail a conference presentation (because the paper already was accepted) or a PhD course (because you can take another), or a paper (because you can always resubmit to another venue).

A PhD is, in most cases, just the beginning of your career. Recruiters don’t care about what you did in your PhD Recruiters are simple and sometimes busy creatures with zero interest in the nuances of your previous research. They care about the skills that you have developed in your PhD Nothing else.

Every talk you give is an opportunity to learn the art of public speaking. In particular, don’t try to impress your audience with unnecessary details about the implementation of your algorithm. They don’t care about that! Those who make questions are not evaluating you. They are actually assessing their own understanding of the topic you presented. At best, your audience wants to have a broad idea about your field so that they can contact you in the future if in need.

Take this into account in the case of poster sessions: highlight the broad idea of your research. For example, if you are explaining your brand new cryptographic algorithm, do not try to put the theoretical math proof of it. Instead, focus on why it is necessary and novel, and let a link to the paper somewhere for the curious.

And definitely, no one will ever look at any of the numbers inside a table of one of your published research papers. The good news is that if there is some methodological error there, no one cares. And if someone does, then that’s even better news. It means that your paper is good enough not to be unnoticed.

At the end of the day, your PhD diploma will be stored in some corner of your home, and no one will ever look at it again. It is something that you have to do for (and by) yourself. So it is better to think in this way.

Conclusion

Doing a PhD is sometimes a very stressful journey. I believe this stress is unnecessary, as it primarily results from students taking science too seriously. Some students genuinely believe that others are continuously evaluating and comparing the quality of their work. But this is very far from being true. In practice, no one actually cares about a particular research paper unless it has her name on it. This is a comfortable truth.

As I said before, it is the training and skill set you gain through the hard research labor what really matters. It is the journey and the people that you meet what that gives the real value and meaning to do a PhD So, forget about the number of papers you have or if you fail to say something in a presentation. In any case, I can assure you that no one will ever care about it!

Footnotes

  1. The only person who may care about your research is your supervisor, only because that’s part of her job. And most importantly, because her name will appear along in your publications. 

  2. I believe PhD students should not be affected by what others think about their research, just because there is not such a thing as what the others think in the first place! 

  3. You should feel lucky just for being capable of producing a cited paper. 

  4. I still don’t understand what’s the point of PhD courses. Are all courses passed at undergrad school a sufficient proof that you can complete assignments and pass tests?