I just read a particularly interesting post by Dr. Becca about life about halfway through the tenure track that got me thinking, particularly one section:
I feel like most of my job right now is to be famous… What I mean by this is that I’m pretty sure a lot of my future success is going to depend on whether people remember my name when they review my grant applications and manuscripts…
What determines your success? How famous you are.
Most famous scientists have a history of excellent research with high impact. And most researchers with a history of excellent research with high impact are famous. (Fame, that is, among scientists.) However, the r2 on this relationship is well below 1. What explains the variance?
What are the factors that makes you more famous, or less famous, than would be merited by your research quality?
Is the impact of your research — how much it influences the work others — closely tied to your fame or are there people who have a high impact but not well recognized – or people who are quite famous but don’t have much impact?
I posit the figure above only as a suggestion, a working hypothesis that I’m not wholly wedded to. It’s a good template for discussion.
The ceiling of the impact of your research is dictated by how famous you are. Your impact could be (very) crudely measured using impact factor, or by an h-score or some other measure of citations. How much of a difference you make. You might get cited a few times if nobody has heard of you, but essentially you need to be known for your work to make a splash. You can only make a difference if people know who you are, which is exactly the point that Dr. Becca made. Your job, if it is to make scientific progress, is to become famous. Because you can only make a difference if you’re famous.
If asked to name two huge advances in biology from mid-1800s, most of us would pick the same things. One came from a person working in obscurity and another by one who was, among scientists of the day, mighty famous and was in regular communication with other famous scientists. Darwin’s scientific impact was immediate. Mendel’s finding required the fame of Hugo de Vries to create a scientific impact more than thirty years later.
There are many things that contribute to fame. One of these is research quality, but also the institution you came from, your academic pedigree, attractiveness, personality, and also your ethnicity and gender can have an effect.
What’s another thing plays a key role in facilitating, or limiting, your fame? The institution where you work. If you’re not based out of a research institution, there is a hard cap on how famous that you’re allowed to become as a research scientist. However, if you’re at a teaching institution, the school doesn’t really want you to be a research scientist of any fame, anyway. Fame isn’t part of the evaluation process for tenure, and you could be entirely unknown off campus and this shouldn’t (necessarily) negatively reflect your tenure bid. This would be fatal at a research institution, where you’re expected to establish a visible profile in the research community.
Our jobs at teaching campuses do not expect us to be famous and do not require it. This might be a defining contrast between a teaching campus and a research campus. However, there are lots of us in teaching institutions that not only are doing consequential research, but also want this research to have as much impact as it possibly can. However, based on the name of the institution found on our nametag when we present at conferences, this becomes very difficult.
There’s a positive feedback loop connecting one’s pedigree, social network, publication history, favorable reviews of grants and proposals, funding, talent of collaborators and fame. They’re all connected to one another. And if you’re at a teaching campus, you’re at a strategic disadvantage because those positive feedback loops don’t work as tightly.
Leveraging your pedigree, papers, and collaborations is harder to do, because of unacknowledged biases against teaching campuses in the research community. You can’t be famous above a certain level, because those at research institutions assume that you aren’t working at one because you can’t get a job at one. If you’re doing research from a teaching institution, that means that you haven’t had enough success to work at a teaching institution. So the thinking goes. Even in the incredibly tight job market, that line of thinking still prevails. You’re skeptical? Pull up a few journals and look at the mastheads, to find the institutions of the editorial board members and the subject editors.
So, unlike Dr. Becca and those at research institutions, my job isn’t to become famous. Even if I was famous, nobody on campus would even be aware of it anyway. However, if I have ambitions for my research to make a difference, then I need to become famous. This fame is required to activate the positive feedbacks among friendly reviews, funding, invitations, collaborations, and so on.