A question from a reader:
I'm about to start my 3rd year of grad school in a physical science working at a top 10 university in my field for a world leader in my sub-field. I'm terrified that I'm going to wind up with a pity PhD, and its going to hurt my chances of getting a good job. Its not like I'm not working really hard, but my project just seems to have an unwork-around-able fatal flaw caused by years of neglect on a major piece of equipment in our lab. I'm trying to fix it, but maybe this means that in about a year I'll get transitioned to a different project, but pretty much no matter what happens at this point I'm going to wind up tainted as the grad student who didn't produce that many publications.
I used to have dreams of being an awesome grad student who produced a couple fantastic publications and maybe had a shot at doing the tenure track. At the rate I'm going, that seems like a pipe dream. So now I'm hoping that I get a fantastic letter of recommendation from my boss and get a good postdoc where I manage to produce enough to demonstrate that it really wasn't my fault as a grad student. If you (or maybe some of your readers) are looking for a postdoc, would you seriously consider a candidate that doesn't have any publications but has a letter from their advisor swearing that they worked really hard, are really smart, and that it just isn't their fault?
I would hire such a person as a postdoc if I knew and respected the advisor or someone else who could confirm that the lack of results and publications was not owing to an inability to finish projects or write papers. I'd be concerned, of course -- I have supervised more than a few postdocs with major writing problems and would prefer to work with those who can and will write their own papers -- and it would be best if there were some evidence to back up an explanation for lack of awesome research results and publications.
If at all possible, a PhD student who wants to pursue an academic career should find something to write up, and the advisor should help with this effort.
My situation may not be analogous, but as a postdoc, the main project I was supposed to be working on was clearly headed for failure because a key collaborator wasn't going to provide a necessary and promised part of the research. My supervisor wasn't about to be proactive and help me with another project, and I feared that my future was going to go up in flames. So I kept working on the original project in the hopes that something would come of it (nothing ever did), but I also started dividing my time between that project and another one -- something I came up with myself. My supervisor didn't mind that I was working on an additional project, which required very few resources, and in the end, the only publications from my postdoc work are from that 'side project'.
I learned a lot from that experience: how to survive a failed project and how to come up with my own research project and carry it through to completion (publications). These are very useful skills for an academic career. I know that some graduate students can have a lot less freedom to take on additional projects, even if they are related to the main thesis project, so it may not be possible to do this. In that case, the student will have to rely on the advisor's ability to make a compelling case that the lack of results/publications is not the fault of the student and should not be taken as an indication of their abilities (or lack thereof).
Readers who supervise/mentor postdocs: Would you consider hiring a candidate such as the one described in the e-mail above? Have you hired such a person before?
Readers who have supervised graduate students with projects that failed, through no fault of the student: What, if anything, have you done to rescue the student (and their future career opportunities)?
Readers who have had a failed project as a graduate student (or postdoc, or assistant professor, or at any vulnerable career stage): What did you do?