5 creative ways to stay productive in graduate school

Written by Sophia Leung, PhD from the University of McGill


As a recent PhD graduate, I understand all too well about publications getting delayed.

While it may seem like your productivity as a scientist is measured only by publications, there are actually many ways to show progress and boost productivity in grad school apart from pumping out papers. So, the next time you’re struggling with getting a publication out, consider these 5 unconventional ways to beef up your CV and give back to the scientific community.


1. Write a journal club paper.

Don’t let the time you spend reading a publication go to waste – write a paper about it! Some journals accept journal club article entries by PhD students and post-docs, where they review the results and contributions of a recently published article. While you’re helping early career researchers or researchers from another field to easily digest the research article and appreciate the nuance in the findings, you’re also developing your skills in scientific communication and critical thinking. Even more appealing is that you’ll get a publication to show your ability as a researcher!

Bonus: In general, people are flattered when you spend the time to write a review about their work. If the author of the research article happens to be someone you want to collaborate/connect with, don’t forget to write them an email afterward to introduce yourself!

Here are some journals that accept journal club articles:


2. Review a paper with your PI.

When you run your experiments first-hand, you grow to know the details that either make or break the result interpretation – the kind of insights valuable to peer review. Journals like Nature (see https://www.nature.com/nrm/for-referees/reviewer-initiatives#ECR) encourage early career researchers to be involved in the review process, where a PhD student would be recruited by their PI to review an article together. For some journals, the student would also be recognized for their contribution. Even if your contribution goes unnoticed, maybe due to the anonymous nature of the review process, it’s still good training for students who aspire to become a PI or be involved with scientific communication. So, make sure to let your PI know that you’re interested in helping with reviewing papers!


3. Write for a not-for-profit.

If you do disease research, be sure to keep an eye out for organizations or websites that look for writers who translate research articles into layman’s terms for patients, their families, and the public. For example, SCASource, under the National Ataxia Foundation, publishes articles written by researchers studying Spinocerebellar Ataxias (SCAs) that facilitate communication between researchers and patients on the latest scientific developments. While you’re giving back to the community with your specific knowledge in the field, you’re also showing through action how much you care about the community, which usually fulfills the social involvement requirement of grants and scholarships. (Check out also BrainPost: https://www.brainpost.co/)


4. Collaborate with colleagues.

Lend your expertise to other scientists and get your name on their papers. Maybe you’re the only one who knows how to run a western blot in your lab, or how to write a Python script. Instead of training your colleagues, ask if they want to involve you in the project and have you as a contributing author. Vice versa, you can borrow others’ skillset to help advance your own projects. Science is best done in collaboration because it’s during discussion that you bring together different perspectives and form new ideas. Besides, it’s good training to get used to establishing common ground and staying receptive to feedback – aka a team player on your CV. So the next time you attend other students’ talks, keep an eye out for collaboration opportunities!


5. Have a fast-moving project.

A colleague of mine was spearheading a high-impact project that was expected to take years. A smart thing she did was to publish a method paper on the optimization of experimental conditions. This helped tremendously in demonstrating progress for scholarship applications and in establishing credibility in her future publications. If you’re in the same boat, try searching for a project that will be relatively fast-moving; for example, a characterization paper or a project from a previous grad student. On top of that, the manuscript writing experience can only be helpful!

There are many reasons to feel frustrated during your degree, especially when the effort you apply and the results are not linear (welcome to grad school!). However, keep in mind that good work takes time, and good research takes a whole lot more time. It is not uncommon to only have your first publication after 5+ years. While you try to work out your experiments, keep yourself busy with the above ideas, stay productive, and do good science!


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