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? 

8 comments

  1. Yes, this is exactly the case in my subfield as well. As a result, group-think is pervasive and some things could not be questioned. Very annoying. The few successful, big groups all look down on each other, but look down even more on anyone on the outside. The opinion of a few famous profs just has a much too large weight of where the field is developing, and of course this starts to hinder progress when the profs get old and inflexible and are afraid someone might criticize their great idea from 30 years ago…. I had the impression that pleasing the famous profs by not being too critical or stubborn and parroting their ideas was crucial to get a permanent position. (Maybe a natural result of having 500 applicants for the same position, you can only get it by having a glowing letter of recommendation from one of the big shots). Btw, I recently read “Lost in Math” by Sabine Hossenfelder, do you know that book? It includes some very good discussion about group think in high energy particle physics and the problems it creates there. I’d be curious what you think of it!

  2. I would say that it depends on the “offspring.” If they are working in very different fields because their advisor made a big shift in research focus between the students, then it’s probably fine. If they have a very different approach to doing research and their ideas are pretty different (possible, but unlikely), it may also be fine. If they’re essentially the same sub-discipline and have a similar approach, then you’re basically enabling an old boy’s network, IMO.

  3. I was told very early on that one needs to differentiate themselves from their advisor’s work. But what I’m seeing is exactly what you’ve seen: not a lot of diverse thinking, which says people are graduating from good programs as good scientists, but not necessarily as good thinkers and innovators. If I have to see one more presentation on bio-inspired robotics (for example), I’m going to throw up. Nearly every candidate in one of the searches here is a carbon copy of the next. People seemingly pick the ‘easy candidates’ with a good background from a good lineage. But, like more times when diversity is lacking, it ends up being worse for the species (in this case: the academic community). There’s a reason why a lot of outside observers think that a lot of topics here are recycled. And unfortunately, being in the minority means that people will continue to be carbon copies unless you can work your way to departmental/university leadership.

  4. My mentor and I joined a department last year full of generations of those dynasties. We do not come from such a dynasty and we do not have deep roots with the dynasties that are here. It’s been rough being here because we are definitely in the outgroup. So, I support diverse hiring – but the environment needs to be open to that diversity. There is vocal support for us and for our work on a marginalized population – but there are things going on that make us both feel a bit ostracized? Excluded? Marginalized? I also found this week that basically all of our tenure-track faculty of color are at huge risk of not being tenured. One faculty member of color was taken off the tenure track bc they were judged to likely not be successful at getting tenured, and another’s tenure case was rejected at the University level (I believe – they passed our school, but it failed somewhere up above).

    So, diversity is great – I do far better in truly diverse environments. But diversity just to appear more diverse without supports and actual valuing of diverse viewpoints, styles, etc. is just a set up for failure for the diverse hires.

  5. Too bad academia now thinks of “diversity” in terms of personal identities such as gender and race and is not concerned with diversity of thought. Recently in my department, postdocs were given the opportunity to invite any researcher they choose to give a seminar. I was disappointed that the shortlist involved people that work in a very narrow sub-field of pharmacology. The senior person coordinating this called us in for a meeting because he was disliked the list, and I thought he was going to address the lack of intellectual diversity. But lo and behold, he didn’t like that the list was mostly composed of men. It was of no concern that everyone on that list worked on the same damn class of proteins.

  6. Wow, you described exactly what I hate about faculty hiring (and off topic but also most small invitation-only conferences).

    Every time we discuss an applicant and someone mentions which lab so-and-so came from, it is always an appeal to ignore the candidate’s actual attributes and focus on their famous advisor. Why exactly? Because you hope hiring the candidate will allow you to curry favor with famous dude? Or maybe you hope candidate will turn into famous dude someday? I don’t know but it seems like it should be hiring 101 to seek out diversity of backgrounds in hiring.

    Maybe because I didn’t come from mega famous labs, but I can’t stand it that my field is rapidly filling up with new faculty from one or two mega groups. Feels like everyone is working on the same thing and trying to please same few ppl. I keep waiting for it to bite them in the back (because honestly how many ppl does it take to work on the same ideas?), But so far it seems that there is just no shortage of jobs, awards, plenary talks, etc for these ppl.

  7. In my graduate program at Famous University I think nearly 1/3 of the faculty had been either students or postdocs in a certain big shot’s lab at some point in their careers.

    Back when I was in a soft money position at a medical school, one thing I noticed that exacerbated this trend was the drive (which I tried to oppose) to only seriously consider candidates who had K99 awards*. Unsurprisingly, these awards overwhelmingly went to postdocs in the labs of famous PIs who had mega resources available.

    *For you non-NIH folks, these are a promise of immediate independent PI level funding once the recipient lands a tt job.

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