Atanas K. Stefanov

On publishing as an undergraduate

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Stefan (right), myself (left), and a watermelon belonging to the director of NAO Rozhen that was taken hostage. The fruit was eventually released in peace.

I intend to write a small blog post for every publication I have a significant contribution in, where I provide another, more mundane facet of my work. What follows is mostly literary, not educational. In the beginning of 2023, the first paper with my name on was published in MNRAS. This work was done in collaboration with Stefan Stefanov, another astrophysics undergraduate in Sofia University. Now, about half a year later, I finally feel my head ripe enough to bear fruit; and I use this moment to share some of my experiences with you.

I met Stefan during early secondary school (‘14-‘17), at a time when I was obsessing over video games. In 2016, I ran into Stefan by chance in a lobby of one such game, and we happened to get along. In the next few years we bumped into each other on several occasions, such as student competitions. I found out that he was also interested in astronomy, and we became good acquaintances. Last year, I happened to attend several observation nights in NAO Rozhen, Bulgaria, and I found him to be having shifts as a telescope operator. We had a few short and pleasant exchanges. It came up in one conversation that we share a surname, and I only remember joking about writing a paper together because the reference would look funny. I took the data for the top 10 surnames in 2021 (Bulgarian National Statistics Institute), and calculated that 20.7% of Bulgarians had the top 10 surnames at the time. According to Eupedia, this indicates low diversity relative to other European countries. In any case, Stefanov is a common surname. Stefan Stefanov is somewhat more exotic; it’s like rolling a two-two in a game of backgammon. What came out as a genuine joke was taken seriously, and I soon had Stefan explaining to me the intricacies of his idea that led to publication.

We did most of our data mining in late summer, but actual analysis only began in late October. At that point, it had started to meddle with the fourth year of my Master’s — what initially looked as easy matter became a serious, standalone project that each of us had to juggle with our Master’s projects! But we were on the ride already, and the novelty of the soon-to-be work had put additional pressure towards its completion. This is not to put our work on a pedestal; I think of the “novelty” element to be characteristic of any work that sees the light of publication. In retrospect, I regard this pressure to have been my main motivator to push this project through a busy term of university. Six long weeks in gloomy London followed, in which I sought refuge in libraries and common rooms to study until late evenings. I would return home every day at about 2200 — some times with grocery bags, some times with a towel In this period, my bathroom was out of order for three weeks or so. — and would sit down together with Stefan to discuss our next steps. We had no supervisors per se, which necessitated more frequent meetings; in those, we would both wonder how to approach certain aspects of the project. We tried to work until 0000 London time — so Stefan, being two hours ahead, must have had it even worse than me — however, I would usually get exhausted way earlier. There were nights in which little progress was made, and we would decide to push ourselves a bit further, so that there would be less work to do the next meeting — such meetings never came. During our work, we had to compile several tables with data from literature. Those tables were small enough to not require immediate automation, but large enough to cause us trouble when we had to import them by hand. This activity I personally found the most laborious, perhaps because it had to be carried out with so much attention — and at such times of the night.

I personally admit that this publication required a significant amount of effort on my end, from start to finish. This is certainly not to say I am unsatisfied — I just wonder whether this was due to my inexperience, due to our misfortunes in terms of environment (e.g. busy terms with university, working in late hours), or something else. One thing I began to appreciate is how hard it was to publish as an undergraduate. Academia StackExchange appears to agree with me; see this and this. It seems to me that you must have an undergraduate that: (1) is inclined to put in extra hours that may not be rewarded; (2) has a good mentor or someone else to be looked after by; (3) has a project that can produce fast and publishable results. I was incredibly lucky with having Stefan, for he was the de facto PI, and for he led with the past experience he had gained in this subfield. This was the fourth paper of Stefan in the subfield; yet the first with no “official” supervisors. If it is unlikely to have one publication as an undergraduate, imagine having four in a row. When Stefan proofread this, he insisted on mentioning that his university program was relatively lightened and allowed such occupations. In addition, it could be argued that publishing a discovery of certain behaviour should be relatively less time-consuming, since one needs to provide with an observation of said behaviour, and not necessarily with a complete explanation of the physics behind it. Our work was not entirely, but somewhat of this kind; and could have been comfortably done in about 40 days during the summer, when we were relatively free of other commitments.

With all said, publishing during an undergraduate programme outweighs all pain that comes with it. Firstly, I feel that this could be an immeasurable advantage in the record of a prospective PhD applicant. During our work with Stefan, I was in need of skills that my programme did not eventually assess me on. This is not the fault of any university. Therefore, a good university student may not necessarily turn into a good researcher. Hiring departments/institutes perhaps recognise that, and consequently may try to estimate the likelihood of applicants to become good researchers. Any published work should help in this judgement by quite a large amount, namely because it is a form of such assessment. Secondly, publishing itself gives a significant morale boost. As far as I am concerned, I would gladly push boulders for months just so I can see my name on a paper for the first time again. This is a feeling taken from me for good. Somewhat bittersweet, but still beautiful by itself.