Circular logic of scientific quality

Jonathan of Working the BENCH describes a visit from a BSD teh awesomest evah scientist type. Career advice was provided:

"Many of the applicants we accepted came from labs where I knew their mentors. Not that I planned it that way - but good applicants come from good labs; and I know the heads of those labs. I know I can trust their letters of recommendations."

I'm sure you can.


After all:

we'll call him Dr. Big, is currently the department chair of Ivy League University (ILU). He was previously the head of an institute and the VP of no less than three biotech companies.

Now, I'm not going to let anyone else off the hook. There are plenty of asshats in nonIvy League Unis. But really, do you people have to work so damn hard to deserve a reputation for clownery?

"I always reserve the right to veto any applicant who the hiring committee recommends. This keeps things in order. Sometimes you have to abuse democracy a little in science so that good people can get hired."

And so that good people can get their grants. And their papers accepted to the right journals. And so, you know, we don't get anyone too....uppity in science.
Go read, there's more idiocy from this chap.
The original post finishes with:

Am I missing something? OK, while the view from the top must be nice - I couldn't help from leaving the luncheon thinking that this guy, although a Master at his craft (science), was completely out of touch with the realities of the current job market for young scientists.

No. No, no NO! This farknozzle is not "out of touch". He is the problem. The very essence of the self-perpetuating GoodOldBoy. "Good scientists and good science, well, we can't have that muddied up by objective criteria or democracy or any of that old chap!" "One knows quality when one sees it, wot wot? When I need to hire, I'll just call up my friends and ask them who they have that's ready to go. Makes it easy to keep the right kind of people doing the right kind of science, doesn't it?"
This approach is just. so. wrong. Open competition of ideas is the thing. Block that off, control who can play and you are going to get an inferior product. Period.
Ah well, at least this genius is in good company.

21 responses so far

  • This dumbass logic is the same one by which the Justice Department got a massive infestation of graduates from Liberty "University" and Regent "University". Someone should send him the dictionary link to the word "cronyism".

  • CC says:

    This farknozzle...
    Oh, no. Please, please, not you too.
    Anyway, rather than elaborate further on why this guy is (at least in the telling) a jackass, I'd note that what he says about "with regards to academia vs. industry as a scientist" isn't nearly as silly as Jonathan seems to think. (Except for the notion that it's easy to become rich as a (PhD) academic researcher. That one hasn't been even remotely true for decades.) There are sound reasons why one might find an industry career preferable to a successful, funded, tenured academic life, and I wouldn't trade mine, but stability and wealth aren't among them.
    ...Liberty "University" and Regent "University"...
    This strikes me as a rather spectacular missing of the point.

  • jonathan says:

    Wow! I guess people actually _do_ read my blog. Heh... thanks for the link back DM! Seems like I struck a cord...
    And, he didn't seem like a 'jackass' - he seemed like a top-scientist who had just stayed in the Ivory Tower and worked his way to the top from the ground up. And, being at the top of the food chain, his perspective was... interesting. I was just amazed by his candor - rarely are PIs so straight out and honest about pedigree and such. Usually they are a bit more guarded; maybe they worry about someone blogging about it... =D

  • jonathan says:

    @ CC : Oh.. and I didn't think his ideas were 'silly' about industry. It was just a confirmation of what I had heard before in one form or another from other senior scientists. The (tiresomely old) "academia vs. industry" debate is... well, always good fodder for conversation.

  • PhysioProf says:

    Just because one arrogant fuckwit talks a big game to prove he is TEH POWERFULZ, doesn't mean that things really work like that.
    I am on faculty at one of the top medical schools in the nation, and I can assure all of the readers of DrugMonkey that we hire on the basis of demonstrated accomplishment, not pedigree. My own post-doc training was in the lab of Dr. Who-The-Fuck?, and I was hired because I was outstandingly productive.
    I call shenanigans unless someone provides evidence that this is not the norm.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I call shenanigans unless someone provides evidence that this is not the norm.
    The norm is irrelevant. It is worth calling these guys out on an individual basis. Heck, you called one of those out yourself for publishing similar opinions.
    Each and every person in a position of power and influence that actually operates under the understanding that pedigree is the best way to identify the best ideas and the best scientists is a problem. First because they affect local hiring decisions and second because they provide aid and comfort to similarly minded peers elsewhere. The depressing effect they have on postdocs who are listening to their "advice" is a bad thing too.

  • neurolover says:

    Yup to DM.
    I think one of the keys from the attitude being described is not that people from no-name labs who are outstandingly productive can't make it but that people from big name labs who are only moderately (or even not very) productive can be propped into positions of power. That is, "affirmative action" for the elite.
    Again, though, it does matter whether this is the norm, or perceived as the norm. PP is really invested in supporting the fairness of a system that's working for him -- but, the real test of fairness is when people for whom it's not working perceive it as fair. Hard of course, 'cause the losers in a system are biased (at least as much as the winners are). But, you really have a fair system when people who didn't win can say, yup, the rules were fair and I just didn't make the cut. You might say I'm dreaming, but it does happen in sports.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    PP is really invested in supporting the fairness of a system that's working for him
    I've heard this sort of comment a time or two and I think it is worth addressing. Not that PP can't defend himself, but...
    The way this is phrased is perhaps a little more critical than is fair. I agree that PP appears to have a good thing going, has landed in an environment that may be free of certain unpleasant feature observed elsewhere and comes across as being an apologist for a system that doesn't always work for everyone. I prefer to think that this comes more from a limited set of experiences than from any pernicious or willful blindness to reality.
    And it IS important for people to describe the places and situations where the system (so to speak) does in fact appear to be working well. For PP to relate that not all department chairs hose new hires if they don't have the details on paper. For him to assure that at least one department hires on the merits and could not care less about pedigree. That someone from a relatively obscure training lab can get offers. Etc. A focus on doom-n-gloom is not providing an accurate picture either and it is important to have counter examples.
    You know, like when I talk about how great R21s are!

  • jonathan says:

    Well, I for one am really enjoying this discussion. With regards to DM's comment: "And it IS important for people to describe the places and situations where the system (so to speak) does in fact appear to be working well." I may very well write up another recent interaction I've had with another Dr. BigName that was a complete turnaround. I came away from it thinking "OK, things are so bad I guess".
    I guess, somehow I got lucky and was able to sit down with a two big wigs and talk science and science careers with them this week. More on that later on over at WtB.

  • LandGrantPI says:

    Jonathan has pissed on one of the holy third rails, not only of science, but of our society in general. For all of the right wing's ranting about the "Liberal Elite", the "Big Name Institutions" are nothing if not the most conservative of institutions hell bent on ensuring that the rich get richer. Access to the biggest pile of money provides access to the best and most cutting-edged resouces, which translates into the sexiest papers, completing the circle to more funding. Meanwhile, God forbid that the mere mortals toiling away outside of the country club have access. Ever been to the HHMI HQ in Chevy Chase? No accident that it's adjacent to the Chevy Chase Country Club (membership in which costs a cool 2 mil upfront plus 100K in yearly dues...but first you have to pass the social muster). No, in this society, what matters is that one has access to the sources of power. Look at Bush, born an anacephelic but with access to the power elite. Or McCain. Based on merit, this guy should never have gotten into Anapolois, should never have been allowed to piolt a plane, etc. But he comes from a long line of admirals. So be it.
    Back to science. This and many other relevant issues (ownership of intellectual property, women in scince, etc) are eloquently addressed in Carl Djerassi's book 'Cantor's Dilemma'. Check it out, it's a brisk read. In the end, I am a successful, NIH funded PI at a Land Grant university. The most apt description of our ilk is "junkyard dog": scrappy types who thrive with fewer resources by being smarter and more inventive. I have learned to ignore these guys and to just do excellent work. After all, it may be fun to do the "swim with sharks" expedition on your carribian vacation, but would you really want to do it every day?

  • PhysioProf says:

    R21s suck my dick! (Well, actually, they refuse to!)

  • neurolover says:

    Oh, I totally agree that positive experiences should be reported, and, they totally happen. There are great department chairs out there who took their jobs 'cause they want to help young scientists grow into independent contributers.
    But, unless you have something more than anecdote to back them up, you shouldn't use them to state a general fact: "doesn't mean that things really work like that."
    (and, yeah, I think PP can defend himself just fine :-).

  • whimple says:

    It's not news to anyone that people from big-name famous labs have a job-seeking edge over people from never-heard-of-it labs. The only thing people prove by doing a post-doc in a never-heard-of-it-lab is that they either like to make life more difficult for themselves than it needs to be, or that they were oblivious to their eventual job-seeking reality, or that they didn't have the ambition, drive or capability of getting a post-doc in a big-name lab. None of these are positive indicators for the future success of the applicant.
    Don't be stupid: do your post-doc in a big-name lab.

  • Dr. Isis says:

    Whimple, you're an idiot.

  • Bill says:

    "Whimple, you're an idiot."
    Hey, don't kill the messenger. Whimple is 100% correct. Whether you like it or not, the reality is as a postdoc you are totally making your life more difficult by working in a no name lab. Maybe not in the short term, but in terms of your future prospects, SO many more doors are open to you in a big name lab. Good luck getting a fellowship when nobody knows who your mentor is. Better luck getting published in a good journal. Hey, its not impossible to succeed if you work in a no name lab, but you will definitely be stacking the deck against yourself.

  • rolf says:

    color me the curve-breaker, I did my post-doc in not a big name lab managed to get a fellowship, a nice starting out grant and a faculty position at a great university.

  • juniorprof says:

    I did my PhD and postdoc in BigName labs in my subfield. Then again, my subfield is smallish enough that I sometimes think that all the labs are BigName labs. Who cares! Get good mentorship, work hard and think even harder and try to wiggle your way into the situation that is right for you. Just don't try to become something or someone that you aren't and you should be okay.
    If you're filling in form letters trying to find a position somewhere, anywhere, you're probably screwed anyway. I get 'em all the time too and don't even read them anymore. What gets my attention is when a prospective trainee starts the conversation with a question pertaining to my previous work. Then I'll consider talking... Disclaimer: this is how I began searching for my postdoc position. No asking for jobs, just email dialogue about interesting papers.

  • Mike_F says:

    Whimple's comment reminds me of a conversation with the P.I. of the next door lab' when I informed him about my postdoc plans in a not-high-profile European lab' (I am an academic in a small country on the other side of the planet from most DM commenters). He looked at me and said "...goodbye, we will never see you again, if you are not going to an Ivy League USA lab', you will never make it back...". I stuck to my plans, and four years later returned to a P.I. position in one of our best research institutions. Looking at my postdoc generation now ~15 years later, most of those who went to big name labs ended up in industry; whereas academic jobs seem to be more prevalent among the few who like me went to a lesser known lab' to follow a project that really interested them.
    Bottom line, if you have no clear idea what you want to do in your postdoc apart from the general field, a large lab' with diverse projects might be a good fit. If you are already focused and know what you want to do, just go for the best lab' to do it in. A small bonus is that if you succeed from a lesser-known-lab', faculty search committees will be more inclined to credit you than your environment.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    neurolover wrote:
    "...people from big name labs who are only moderately (or even not very) productive can be propped into positions of power. That is, "affirmative action" for the elite."
    Yep, that's what I referred to as Care Bear culture for the academic children of the elite in my earlier response to PP's `Care Bear' post. See it all the time in my field. My experience in trying to compete with these folks on merit is that single-author papers in PRL (our top physics journal, the equivalent of your Cell) count for nothing against their their publications in regular journals as junior coauthor on the papers of the bigshots. (Except for fellowship aplications, which were the only times my PRL papers seemed to do me some good.)
    This is not a unique experience; I know of others who have done the same experiment and with more precision than me and got the same outcome.

  • PhysioProf says:

    As someone--I think--pointed out above, the situation is frequently the opposite in the biosciences. Post-docs who publish in glamour mags with Dr. Who-The-Fuck? as senior/corresponding author rather than Dr. Big-Swinging-Dick! are perceived as having demonstrated great potential for establishing an independent research program.

  • ancient physics postdoc says:

    Yes, it sounds like the situation is less fucked up in the biosciences. It is probably no coincidence that the gender balance is much better there as well than in physics.

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