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Gamifying Research has Penetrated to the Ground Water of PhD Students


The Great Game?

It was almost 8 years ago that I heard phrase by a PhD student: “I am in the academic game now”, after publishing his first paper. Game. This is the word now commonly associated with research by many in the research community. It’s a sport, a race, it has prizes, spectators, and if it was any more interesting, there might be a global gambling app. Who is going to publish the most papers by end of PhD? Who will win that fellowship? As with many competitive games and sports, sadly also comes malpractice: the purchasing of victories and the exchange of team positions (co-authorships), and mutual applause (citations).


PhDs Playing the Odds

This kind of ill thinking and practice has been a common malice throughout academia, but never I believe has it been so prolific amongst PhD students – the ground water of our ecosystem. In recent years I have witnessed many PhD students practicing (and doing a good job of) the dark arts – like those of a bad behaving principal investigator (PI). They build citation networks, co-author networks, spanning dozens of research groups, all independent of their supervisors. Am I jealous? (a little) Am I impressed by the scale and audacity (yes).


Ethics and Rules

Can’t academics put an end to it? Sure, there are university research ethics procedures that ensure the reputation of universities are not in the sole hands of students, but do many academics care enough to fill out exhaustive paperwork, wage a campaign of censorship on their own PhD students, and look like someone who is either out of control or can’t get over the fact that their students have more papers than they do?


My Thoughts

What this blog post is trying to do, should a PhD student chance upon it is this. Do not burn your own career down. PhDs are your last chance to truly get your head down and actually learn and develop something that belongs to you. It is your chance to develop unique skills that benefit you and the world. If you spend all your energy selling yourself cheaply on the international market like an academic mercenary (1 co-author for my ANOVA analysis, 1 corresponding author for my Deep Learning skill), you will emerge a little richer, but intellectually in poverty. You may think that this is how the world works and you can go on to repeat this infinitely. You cannot. Sooner rather than later, you will run out of skills to sell as new younger talents cost less and can do more. You have basically limited yourself at the old age of 25 and now find yourself unable to progress for the next 40 years.

People may say, “well it is easy for you to say this in a position of academic wealth and power, but we have to live in the real world where papers is a currency for jobs.” My response is you are dead wrong. Papers are not a currency, research is. Being able to explain why you worked with these people and how you conducted research is more important. Your future employer is not stupid enough to see 25 papers and jump in joy and offer you a job. They were not born yesterday, PIs are smarter, wiser, and have far more complex experience in these things.


My greatest professional regret is not to have worked harder during my PhD. But for all my faults, I didn’t waste time trading papers, I read philosophy, travelled the world, and learnt so much from my adventures.


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