Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Advisors (Pt II): How important is the name?

As an older graduate student/young postdoc, I often noted that the people who received lots of job interviews tended to have stellar academic lineages (i.e., either their Ph.D. supervisor or post-doc advisor, or both, were scientific rockstars). The cynic in me assumed that this reflected more about the psychology of academia than anything else. However, I am beginning to wonder if there really is something about the "pedigree" that may be important.

Over the past couple of years I have run into the following scenario again and again: bright, capable student wants to publish papers in Ecology, American Naturalist, Ecology Letters, etc, but has no concept of how to write a paper that could possibly get accepted. The reasons for this vary. Some are working on projects that their advisor told them to do, but if it ever was cutting edge it was 20 years ago. Some are doing cutting edge science, but haven't learned how to write for big journals. The latter is a common scenario I run into; somewhere along the line the basic lesson has not been learned that writing for The Journal of Your Favorite Specialized Taxonomic Group probably results in a very narrowly written paper that is not acceptable for the broader, higher impact, ecology journals. Invariably these students seem to have one thing in common: they would never be described as having a great pedigree.

What I am wondering is if there is something important about who you train with. Having a big name advisor is obviously no guarantee of becoming a successful scientist. Having less than lustrous pedigree is not some unalterable death knell. I still believe a good pedigree says nothing about the inherent quality or potential of a scientist, but I am beginning to suspect that it does indicate something about the "scientific level" that someone has been trained to operate at.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely the places where your advisors publish determines what the student's expectations are and what they can presumably have been trained to work towards.

However, this can have a downside too. At the land-grant R1 where I was an undergrad, I was told by a professor with an MIT PhD that it took him 15 years to undo all the programming his advisor and MIT had put into him -- took that long for him to decide how to define professional success for himself. That he could be happy with his productivity without publishing in Nature and Science.

He shared this with me before I headed off to a top 10 university for my PhD (in EEB). There, I saw my professors have "Big Journal Overreaching Syndrome" -- where any experiment, no matter how small, is a potential Nature or Science paper until proven otherwise, and there was often more attention paid to spin than to knocking out some more experiments or doing more controls.

I know that I have to catch a case of BJOS if I'm going to make tenure, but I think there's nothing wrong with publishing solid work in the top field-specific journals (Ecology instead of PLoS Biology or Science, for instance), or taxon-specific journals and letting the important papers bubble up through appropriate citation.

River Tam said...

I know that I have to catch a case of BJOS if I'm going to make tenure, but I think there's nothing wrong with publishing solid work in the top field-specific journals (Ecology instead of PLoS Biology or Science, for instance), or taxon-specific journals and letting the important papers bubble up through appropriate citation.

For many EEB programs (including many at R1s) you can easily get tenure if you're landing things regularly in the Ecology/AmNat/Ecology Letters range. A paper in Science/Nature/PLoSBiology/PNAS is just the decoration on the cake. It's just depends on how high-powered a department you want to end up in.

As for the programming, you're completely right and that's what I think can be so valuable about the blogosphere....hearing different perspectives on what "success" means and being able to decide consciously what you want your life to be like - as opposed to blindly following what you've been programmed to do because you don't know any better.

Candid Engineer said...

I think it's all pretty much a matter of probability. I think people who come from great pedigree have a much higher probability of being 'very good' than people coming from average pedigree. You have to decide for yourself, though, on a case-by-case basis.