04 April 2012

Science careers: fair play or field of bullets?

Yesterday, Elizabeth Sandquist posed an hypothesis:

You can't just be good to succeed in #science, you have to be exceptional. Any thoughts?

NeuroPolarBear replied with a post, and Drugmonkey pulled out an older post.

ResearchBlogging.orgBut my post will be the best, for I shall cite peer-reviewed data in the primary literature.

As it happened, Petersen and colleague published a paper yesterday looking at career success in physics. Appropriately enough, even though it’s a career paper, it feels very much like a physics paper: lots of equations and models and phrase like “leptokurtic but remarkably symmetric.” Hoooookay...

The authors tracked 300 physicists through about 20 years of their careers. They fell into three groups: phsyicists who were eminent (h -index of 61); productive and highly cited (h-index of 44), and early career assistant professors (h-index of 15). In that data from real scientists, Petersen and colleagues see that there are time when physicists are “shocked.” The shocks can be positive (“Wow, I just made this totally great discovery by accident!”) or negative (“Uh oh, they found that paper where I manipulated data.”)

They also look at career productivity, and the ability of researchers to build collaborations.That’s the “ground truth” that Petersen and colleagues use to create models of research career trajectories. This lets them play with some of the parameters.

The models indicate that as competition increases, many people can be taken out of the career pathway by... blind, stinking, clueless, doo-da luck.

Those that survive the field of bullets reach a point where they can start generating collaborative networks, and that builds even more success.

But the competition turns out to be very important in this model; and that relates to tenure. Many people want to see tenure replaced with a series of recurring short-term contracts. The authors imply that the short-term model could be harmful for the development of science. A failure in one short-term contract could derail a productive researcher, since early career shocks can ripple throughout a scientist’s career.

I think Petersen and colleagues would say that you do not have to be exceptional to make it in science. More important is the ability to tough out the early weeding out period, which doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with your talent.


Petersen A, Riccaboni M, Stanley H, Pammolli F. 2012. Persistence and uncertainty in the academic career Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(14): 5213-5218. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1121429109

1 comment:

Jeremy Fox said...

Good to see data on this. The data jive with my own experience of almost not making it in academia, which I wrote about here: