09 May 2011

Is your research future predicted by your supervisor’s research past?

ResearchBlogging.orgAt the end of last week, I published a bit of a rant. After I had cooled a bit, I wondered if the response of my gut would survive scrutiny by my head.

The NeuroTree website says:

Big families stay big. Children of researchers with many offspring tend to have many offspring of their own.

This suggests a “pedigree” effect that many would see as positive (more students means more success). They don’t give the data supporting that claim, though.

I went looking for research on the effect of “pedigree.”

Goodwin and Sauer have a paper that sort of addresses the issue, although (1) it’s about economists, and; (2) they rated the prestige of the institution where a person got their doctorate, not the specific mentor (I suppose “lab” doesn’t have much meaning in business school). They find economists who received a degree from a “top 20” doctoral program gain a significant advantage in research productivity.

In contrast, a slightly newer paper by Long and colleagues (looking at management professors in business schools this time) found no effect of where someone got their doctorate, which seems to be evidence against “pedigree” being a useful predictor. Much more important to productivity was the quality of the institution where the faculty member was ultimately employed.

Williamson and Cable, again studying management faculty, found a positive correlation of productivity of doctoral supervisor with early career productivity. The more productive your boss, the more productive you are. Because it looked at the supervisor, not the program or institution, it seemed to be the closest to what I was looking for.

But the trail dried up for me when I went looking for similar data in the biological sciences. I’m sure there are papers out there, but I couldn’t find them very easily. If anyone knows any, I’d love references.

Evidence suggests that “pedigree” is an predictor of success. I was wrong.

I stand by my dislike of the term, however, with all the negative connotations that it has. “Pedigree” implies your past defines you. I prefer the term “heritage,” which recognizes that you are shaped and influence by your past, but are not necessarily defined by it.


Long RG, Bowers WP, Barnett T, White MC. 1998. Research productivity of graduates in management: Effects of academic origin and academic affiliation. The Academy of Management Journal 41(6): 704-714.

Goodwin TH, Sauer RD. 1995. Life cycle productivity in academic research: Evidence from cumulative publication histories of academic economists. Southern Economic Journal 61(3): 728-743.

Williamson I, Cable D. 2003. Predicting early career research productivity: the case of management faculty Journal of Organizational Behavior 24 (1): 25-44. DOI: 10.1002/job.178


Becca said...

It's great that you followed up on this, Zen! I'm interested in your distinction between "pedigree" and "heritage," and why you think one indicates some sort of all-encompassing definition of a person, while the other merely a partial influence. It's clear that by "pedigree" you mean a person's past mentors, but how would you define a scientist's heritage?

Zen Faulkes said...

The two are synonymous in literal, practical terms: both usually mean, "Who was your Ph.D. supervisor?"

I'm talking about subtleties here.

When I think about my "academic heritage," I think about all the people who I was lucky enough to train with, not just my immediate doctoral supervisor. And I also think about who they worked with.

That's the connotation of "heritage" for me. "Heritage" is a word we use for cultural things, and we understand culture is flexible.

Because "pedigree" comes from animal breeding, it has deterministic connotations. "Biology is destiny", "You can't change blood", and "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree" kind of thing.

Does that clarify?

Jed said...

I find this fascinating as I am studying I see the supervisor as a huge part of how productive people are. For instance a lot of my friends in different research groups have been told that no one expects anything from you during your first 6 months as you are supposed to be 'learning the ropes'. Where as thankfully my supervisor takes the view if you do nothing of worth it is a waste of 6 months and so has pushed me to be productive. Add that to the fact that the group I am part of is small, so the PhD students are treated like post-docs, and you end up with an environment that nurtures and develops a group of students that are looking to average 2-3 papers each per year.
But this is all just first hand experience, I like your trail of thought to see if that productive element comes from the previous generation and their student environment. I would like to see any future developments you find on this.

Carmelo Fruciano said...

I DO think that your past (in terms of who was your supervisor) can influence your future (in terms of productivity/attitude/whatever). However, there are various problems with this approach:
- what is the right measure of "success"? I doubt there is "one fits all" measure
- the "success" (whatever that means) of a supervisor doesn't traslate into a single approach to directing a group nor to the transmission of what it takes to be successful
- relying too much on "pedigree" might mean just avoiding taking decisions (in an extreme case, think about a tenure-track hire based on who you did your postdoc which was, in turn, based on who you did your PhD which was, in turn, based on where you attended as an undergraduate; basically the responsability of the choice gets pushed back in time)

I also think it's important to consider the relative merits of a candidate. That is, do you prefer a candidate who's done extremely well in a small institution/with an unknown supervisor or a candidate who's done "normal" with an important supervisor?

For all these reasons (and others which I won't mention because otherwise this comment would get too long) I tend to think that, while your academic past has an influence, such an influence is quite "unpredictable" in practical terms and should not be given too much weight.