06 May 2011

Academic pedigrees

Academia is a meritocracy, where the only thing that matters is your own output, hard work, and skills. Ideally.

I hate being reminded of how far away from the ideal the reality is. The term “academic pedigree” is one of those reminders.

I understand the interest in looking for connections between academics. I’ve written about my own a few times, most recently here. What I dislike is that this is seen as some sort of meaningful yardstick for judging a person’s suitability for jobs, particularly tenure-track jobs. Indeed, I’ve read at least one post somewhere saying that pedigree was the most important factor.

Do people not think that discussing job candidates and grad students and post-docs using the same terminology as livestock and show dogs is not just a little demeaning?

“Pedigree” also has connotations with aristocracies. And one of the bad things about aristocracies is that they often set things up to keep all the power to themselves. Aristocracies often want preserve the status quo and making sure the playing field never becomes level. Because when it’s all about breeding, well, there’s nothing one can do about that, now, is there?

How would the discussion change if every time someone talked about “academic pedigree,” it was replaced with “well connected in the old boys’ club”? Let’s make it explicit that this discussions of pedigree are discussions about power relationships, and not merit.

Related posts

Inclining the playing field
Balkanizing small universities
To have and have not. Mostly not.

External links

Reason No. 52 not to go to grad school
Science professor - see the comments

Hat tip to Dr. Micro O.

Dog pedigree by ronmichael on Flickr; cow pedigree by dan mogford on Flickr; both used under a Creative Commons licence.


Anonymous said...

I tend to disagree. I think that training environment is a good predictor of a person's future success as a scientist. If you did a PhD/Postdoc in a very productive, well regarded lab with an excellent mentor at the top of their field, you are probably more likely to replicate this productive environment in your lab. It's not the only predictor, but it is an important one.

Zen Faulkes said...

Then let's call them, "well trained." :)

Examining the productivity of the lab someone was in can be information, but the person’s own productivity should be even more informative.

Alison Cummins said...

If you’re looking for someone’s ability to do research in isolation, then you want people who were productive when they worked alone with minimal support.

If you’re looking for someone who can help create a productive lab, you want people who know what working in a productive lab is like.

If you’re looking for someone who can help get funding to build a productive lab, then you want someone well-connected in the old boy’s club.

Presumably you want a combination of independent productivity and intimate understanding of what a good lab is like. Fundraising credibility may or may not be more important than that depending on your immediate needs.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I indicated that *pedigree* is the most important factor, but it's something to consider. I definitely agree that, without evidence of a trainee's personal productivity, this factor becomes meaningless.

The thing I want to get through to grad students looking for postdocs in hope of future TT-dom is that their training history will matter when looking for jobs and applying for grants. This doesn't mean choosing the Glamor Lab at Harvard, but it does mean finding someone with a good history of turning out successful postdocs in TT positions, regular solid publications, and well-regarded science.

The word choice that's commonly used is unfortunate, indeed. And I have no problem with changing it. Pedigree indicates much more than just a well-trained individual. It indicates they've trained (presumably) under the best in their field. How about using "scientific family tree" instead?