Candid thoughts on the GlamourMag chase

Jun 16 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring, Science Publication

Candid Engineer recently posted on the local publication culture and how this has shifted internal frames of reference to covet GlamourMag publications.

When the hell did I get so obsessed with Glamour Mags?!?!?!! It is seriously not a particularly healthy behavior.
I got obsessed with Glamour Mags because my lab is obsessed with Glamour Mags. It's all people seem to read, all people seem to want to talk about, all people want to publish in.

I was further struck by this observation, which underlines my occasional soapboxing on the issue:

I need to remind myself that I don't need this kind of publication to succeed. I need to remind myself about one of my labmates, who has numerous impact factor 4-5 papers from her stint as a postdoc, got 9 interviews at top-20 schools and something like 5 or 6 offers. She's starting her TT-position at Stanford in the fall. And I guess Stanford is nothing to sneeze at.

Exactly. The CNS-laden CV is not a prerequisite for a career. Singing my song.
But I have some additional thoughts.


As I have observed before, it is a mistake to rely on easy, generic prescriptions for career success.
What is critical is that you do the research for your own anticipated career directions (this was originally motivated by this post from Dr. Shellie).

My suggestion is, if you expect to have a career you had better have a good idea of what the standards are. So do the research. Do compare your CV with those of other scientists. What are the minimum criteria for getting a job / grant / promotion / tenure in your area? What are you going to do about it? What can you do about it? Don't misunderstand me- nobody is going to hand you a job / grant / etc just because you hit the modal publication numbers. But it will be very easy for you to be pushed out of the running if you do NOT hit the expected values. So do what you can to keep your CV as competitive as possible.

Candid Engineer's experience points to how difficult the calculation can be. The lab is having good success with GlamourPubs at the moment but, obviously, at least one prior trainee got a job at a good school without those GlamorPubs. Perhaps this is because the lab has changed directions or hit on some kewl hot science...or perhaps they have just started trying to chase GlamourPubs. Whichever.
The important part is that CE's co-trainee got hired with pubs in journals of Impact Factor 4-5 which is actually several tiers down from Glamour status. Hired at a very respectable institution indeed.
I would suggest that anyone in a similar situation should think very long and hard about the hows and whys of these situations. Why did the prior individual get hired? Was it despite not having GlamourPubs? Do all the other new hires around the country in the same year, in related areas of science also "only" have a string of IF 4-5 publications? Is this the exception or the expectation?
Is the laboratory's current success in getting the high-profile publications a jump forward in profile within the field? or are they playing catch-up? Is it a well-established, respected and highly productive lab that simply did not bother to play the publication games until recently? The answer to these types of questions will help one to assess whether one needs to keep on keepin on or make some strategic changes in one's research directions/ambitions.
To get as specific as possible about CE's pondering, the question is what the current and immediate future expectations are likely to be within the field in question. Not to mention personal assessment of the CV. Suppose CE already has a string of IF 4-5 pubs (including many first-author!) on the CV and has (or expects) at least a couple from the current training posting. It makes perfect sense at this point to sacrifice additional pubs by trying to work towards a GlamourPub. OTOH, if CE has a CV that is on the thin side it could very well be that the best approach is to work for the standard of "numerous impact factor 4-5 papers" that was set by the recently-transitioned colleague.
Look, it is not important to focus on whether your CV does/does not have particular characteristics. Careers are what they are and grad students/postdocs have been captive to their training environments. The presence or absence of a particular type or quantity of papers is a simple fact. The question is, where do you go from there? What do you need to change or shore up? What can you change. How can you move forward to attain your goals of a continued career in scientific research?
The only legitimate knock on you is if you blunder along without explicitly considering effects of publication choices on your career.
[ PhysioProf has a few thoughts on the matter. ]

8 responses so far

  • anonforthis says:

    I recently got a TT position at a top 20 school.
    my post-doc pub record was a scattering of (5) publications (3 first authors) pubs ranging from IF of 4 to 9....with another two first author's submitted in similar journals ....No CNS papers.
    More important than a CNS paper, I had a history of getting funding...NRSA as a post-doc (individual not institutional) and a K award as a senior post-doc.
    Also, I networked in my subfield extensively. This didn't 'get' me a job per se, but when current chair started calling around, a few people mentioned my name as a good person...and then I got an interview. sometimes all you need is a foot in the door.
    I was told by several people at big well respected schools, that my lack of CNS papers was why I didn't get an interview. So it is a mixed bag...I think that one can get a great job without a CNS paper as a post-doc. HOWEVER, there are still departments that will only consider people who have CNS papers.

  • andrew says:

    You also have to factor in why you got into the field in the first place. If your interest is in cocktail parties at conferences, status, clout, being aloof and inflating an already englarged ego - then YES you should strategically try to anticipate what kind of work will be trendy enough in your field to get you into Glamour Mags. If on the other hand you got into research out of genuine intellectual curiosity and a passion for knowledge (quaint anachronisms I know) then just do the kind of work you are interested in doing and quite worrying about padding your CV. In my opinion, the most interesting and game changing science always happens on the fringe anyway, until of course that work becomes trendy (think of resting-state/default network brain imaging). I understand the pressure to make 100K, be productive and get tenure is heavy, but does anyone just do science for the sake of doing science?

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    I am with anonforthis.
    The best way to get into the game is do some decent work. Make sure your papers are of high quality which has nothing to do with whether they are in CNS rags, and try to get funded as early and often as possible. Get busy as a grad-student and postdoc. Just get in there and weasel your way in on the lore and esoterica of funding with your local mentors/graybeards. Make yourself indispensable at your current institution, get an asst professorship research track or whatever...just enough to get you positioned to apply for and garner real research support. Then move on to another institution where they will treat you as an adult.
    At most decent MRUs they are more interested in your funding track record with decent publications rather than a single or a couple of glamourmag articles. Bottom line, you need to cover a decent portion of your salary and be consistent in your funding and work level. If you get sucked into the CNS vortex you will just become the next shmuck in line waiting for this big score as you age into a giant loser on his 4th postdoc.
    That was my method. I did OK...full professor at 38. I am starting a new chairmanship at a new MRU in two weeks. Weasel away and get funded.

  • whimple says:

    Q: does anyone just do science for the sake of doing science?
    A: Yes, but in the current funding environment, that kind of approach tends to be unsustainable. For sustainability today, (academic) science needs to be done for the sake of getting funded.
    That was my method. I did OK...full professor at 38. I am starting a new chairmanship at a new MRU in two weeks. Weasel away and get funded.
    That's great that makes you happy. 🙂

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Whimple:
    Its not the end point that makes you happy. The point is that you get to do your science if you follow an appropriate course toward success. Isn't that really the point? You need to get to a certain point in your career where you are no longer sweating about your future survival and you can actually worry about your science. Don't worry I can't wait for the disappointment to begin when the Dean screws me!

  • whimple says:

    The point is that you get to do your science if you follow an appropriate course toward success.
    What could be debated is when the appropriate course toward success diverges from the science you want to do. Suppose you're on the bunny-hopping track to success, but in your heart of hearts you really believe bunny-hopping is a total waste of time and fish-swimming is where your real interest lies. Unfortunately, there is no fish-swimming study section. Now what do you do? Play along with the bunny-hopping crowd and try to sneak in some fish experiments on the side? When your competitive renewal comes due, how do you explain the lost bunny-hopping productivity due to your obscure fish fetish? Freedom to direct your own research to pursue science as you see best is the biggest selling point of an academic career, but I'm wondering whether this freedom doesn't in reality turn out to be illusory for a lot of people.

  • andrew says:

    "but I'm wondering whether this freedom doesn't in reality turn out to be illusory for a lot of people."
    A former mentor of mine was nearing retirement and he said that he was looking forward to retiring because he would finally have time to work because was 25 years behind on his own research.

  • msphd says:

    a more balanced post and comments (and PP!) than i've seen on this in a while. i think with what's up here now, you've covered all of it. the good, the bad, the ugly, and the invisible political oomph that can (in the right circumstances) fill in for whatever else is missing.
    andrew- would love to meet more people like you someday in real life. i sometimes feel like i'm living in a fringe colony on the outskirts of glamourmag city.
    whimple- your description of the perils of an "obscure fish fetish" is a great little piece of writing!

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