Dealing with a dry spell

In the last 12 months, I had 6 papers published [1] (two as first author, four as middle author). I currently have another 3 in review plus another two close to submission (two more submission before the end of the year are likely).

Awesome productivity, right? It wouldn’t be bad for a small lab to get a paper every two months and I’m just a guy with a laptop.


Unfortunately, these numbers reflect not just the fact that I’m both extraordinarily productive and work long hours [2], but also the fact that for the previous two years I didn’t have anything come out.

During those days, all of my work got stuck in different stages of the pipeline without seeing the light of print. I did do other things, like move between countries (twice), I did have other things happen (like writing a PhD thesis and what not), but no papers published.

I did submit manuscripts. They got rejected after (sometimes long) reviews. Sometimes, they got rejected twice for good measure.


This post will surely get some google hits from people who think it’s about how to deal with not having sex for a long time. It is not. But if it were, it wouldn’t be that much different.

When you keep submitting manuscripts and they keep getting rejected, you start to lose confidence, you lose your edge, you doubt yourself. This applies not only to the submission process per se (submitting the manuscript, where you start to procrastinate with more-or-less finished work) but to the everyday practice of science, you start to lose the scientific killer instinct. You succumb to analysis paralysis.

Fear is the mind killer.

Much of what I do (we do, as scientists) is try to swim in the ocean of analysis possibilities and false hypotheses to find a current which I can pursue to a pot of gold. It’s not a needle in a haystack. Needles may be difficult to find, but when you do find them, you are sure you have a needle. If you are (un)lucky, you just sit on the haystack and the needle will announce itself on your behind. Good scientific hypotheses are not like that. They hint at you, look very much like bad hypotheses, and are hard to distinguish from the morass.

I feel rather that I swim around trying to detect hints of a current. The currents are there, but so are waves and fish and other divers trying to confuse you. The trick is to feel the vague hints of a current and then systematically show that it is there. Most of the time, though, your hypothesis of a current turns out to just be a whale fart [3]. However, you need to have enough of a killer instinct to pursue these whale farts one after another until you find the right stream. When you lose confidence, you risk swimming around aimlessly, dismissing even true currents as whale farts.


Eventually, though, the coin tosses of peer review started going my way [4].

In the meanwhile, this experience made reconceptualize a large part of the process. For example, I now no longer see submission as a goal, but as an intermediate milestone. At CMU, there is an annual event, called the Random Distance Run where the length of the race is decided randomly partway through the race.

The exact number of laps will be specified by the sum of two ENORMOUS FUZZY DICE rolls – one occurring just before the start of the race, and one just before the first runner finishes the number of laps specified by the first dice roll.

Getting a publication is the same, when you submit, you are at the point where a new die is cast. You may be near the end of the race or you may not.


At one point, I commented with someone that all my stuff seemed to fail in review. They said something to the effect of it must be hard to keep failing and I just said when you’re in science, failing is the job.

Failing is the job.

Fail. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett

[1] Onetwothreefourfive, and six (post forthcoming).
[2] Even though both of these are true.
[3] I’m pretty sure that whales fart. Whales probably have an awesome microbiome.
[4] Yeah, yeah, peer review is not only random.

3 thoughts on “Dealing with a dry spell

  1. As a new career scientist, I appreciate your candor. In a way, it’s nice to know that experienced researchers such as yourself can weather a two-year dry spell without the metaphorical world crashing down. The last two years for me have been similar; granted, the world of graduate studies is very different from yours, but in that time I have worked on several fronts, many of which didn’t pan out. To say it was frustrating would be an understatement.

    On a somewhat orthogonal point: what happened to the Waldo paper?

  2. Pingback: 2014 in Review | Meta Rabbit

  3. I recently got a B.S. in Physics and am currently doing a Post-Bacc at the University of Iowa in the Molecular Physiology and Biophysics department. I’ve been working on getting a publication for about 3 years now. I have worked on 4 projects and am currently working on 3. My goal is to get a publication before I apply to graduate school. Most importantly, I want to become a well-rounded scientist that knows where his passion lies. In doing so my curiosity led me to study the relationships between graph theory and quantum theory, and now protein folding. I’ve done a lot of pure mathematics and usually struggle with getting the confidence to tell a story. I have several theorems and lemmas that weren’t too difficult to prove but they lack a cohesive story. Interpreting the mathematics has been a roller coaster of emotion. The false eureka moments quickly add up and you get discouraged as to why you are event doing this. I actually gave up and stopped pursuing my first project because I convinced myself it was worthless. I am however beginning to think I was wrong and that finishing what I started should be my number one priority.

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