Day: February 21, 2019

The Anointed

Monopolies are a feature of capitalism, but I (naively) never used to think they could be a feature of academia.

I am active in several subfields, and in each there is a small number of large, successful, well-funded groups that seem to pollinate the entire national academic ecosystem and largely the international one, too. People from these few groups take up positions everywhere, from primarily undergraduate institutions to research schools, then rise through the ranks and create  impenetrable in-groups that block others from access to jobs, grants, and high-impact publications.

A deeply worrying aspect of this uniformity of pedigree is groupthink. The situation in which  everyone who works in a certain subarea comes from a small number of nexuses and has the same type of training, while no one else is awarded opportunities, cannot be beneficial for the vitality of science.

This post has been brought to you by the annual job cycle, specifically by the flurry of on-site interviews in which I’ve had to partake.

There is no such thing as The One Best Candidate for the Job. There are usually 20+ excellent applicants, of whom some number both look good on paper and interview well; any of them would make a great addition to the department. When a department thinks about whom to hire, should members of the faculty worry that one or more sprouts of an applicant’s academic progenitor are already among their ranks? I think this is a legitimate concern, as it speaks to an important aspect of diversity — a diversity of thought.

I seem to be a minority in this line of thinking. I have heard people who came from famous academic lineage say that they see no problem with big groups having their offspring everywhere. They attribute a junior scientist’s high count of high-impact paper solely to the junior scientist’s individual awesomeness  (and somehow never to advisor fame/success, school prestige, etc.), likely because they recognize (or strive to recognize) their younger selves in the candidate. These folks actively push to bring in more faculty with a background identical to their own and generally respond to my concerns by being upset, because to them I am implying that the best, brightest, and most worthy (read: those like them) — the anointed, if you will — aren’t entitled to absolutely everything.

There is a strong and unhealthy careerism aspect to academic science that creates research-group behemoths and dynasties. Sure, there are variations among fields and in some disciplines larger groups are more common than in others, but, as a whole, what is clearly no longer a trend but a mainstay of academic-science operations is not healthy for the science itself, which — as much as any endeavor and probably more than most — needs many smart but differently trained people to pursue many interesting threads in many different ways in order for truly new insights to emerge.

Academic blogosphere, what are your thoughts on hiring multiple people with the same educational background? On the fact that dozens of people with the same training are on faculty in your field, especially if you are not among the in-crowd? If you are?