Much of the April 15th angst that Sean described comes from student’s questioning “Will I be a success if I go to this particular graduate school?”. They place a tremendous weight on this decision (and rightly so, given the 5+ year duration of a typical PhD). The decision of where to go to school presents a clean well-defined juncture, where you can imagine two clear paths before you, one that leads to a happy land filled with unicorns and flowers and all night coffee shops and independent record stores, and another that leads to a sad grey land where you spend your time shuffling piles of paper for The Man. However, having been in the game from the faculty side for nearly a decade, I can say that much of what determines whether one is a “success” is largely independent from this decision. (An aside: for this discussion I’m going to assume “success” equals working as a research scientist, which is the typical goal of an entering grad student. I don’t mean this as a value judgement, since “success” is really “whatever career path you find fulfilling”, and I’m just as happy to train phenomenal future high school science teachers as future faculty at Harvard.)
I think the essence of what determines your long-term success as a scientist is your ability to influence the scientific discussion. When you’re at a point in your career when people pay attention to your work, and want to know “What does <your name > think about this?”, you are on a near certain path to a stable position as a research scientist. Instead, if no one is reading your papers (to the extent that you’ve published them at all), or wants to hear what you say at conferences, or calls you up to ask you about your area of expertise, then you’re in danger of drifting out of the field.
Now, the factors that lead to having scientific influence are many. Among the most important are:
- Writing lots of papers
- Writing interesting papers
- Writing papers using novel or superior data sets
- Writing papers on a timely topic
- Being recognized as leading the above papers, rather than being directed by others
- Communicating your ideas with clarity
- Being socially well-connected in your field
- Being really, really, really, unusually smart and/or creative
- Having influential mentors promoting you
To be scientifically successful, you don’t need to have all of these factors, or even most of these factors. You just need to have enough of them, or a long enough suit in one or two of them, that people can’t ignore what you’re doing.
Of this list, there are at least half that are almost entirely under a student’s own control, no matter where they go to graduate school. You can pick inspiring mentors, write lots of papers on interesting, timely topics, and give riveting talks about them, no matter where you are. You can fail to write any papers (on topics boring or not) and give lousy talks, under the negative guidance of ineffective advisors, even if you go to a top-ranked school. Some of the other factors do probably have some correlation with top-ranked programs, in that such programs are more likely to have the luxury to admit only students with early evidence of brains and creativity, and they tend to have more of the resources that lead to superior data access, or a larger pool of productive theorists (postdocs & faculty). [However, in astronomy at least, there is sufficiently rich access to public resources (SDSS, NASA’s Great Observatories, 2MASS, etc) that one can usually have sufficient access to create “novel or superior data sets” no matter where you are. For lab-based physics, this is likely less true.] In this list, the relative “prestige” of one’s graduate program has little direct impact on your eventual scientific impact. When I hire postdocs, or evaluate fellowship applications, I am drastically more impressed by what someone actually did, than where they went to school.
Besides the import for deciding where to attend school, the above elucidates why “climate” issues can have such a large impact on your eventual career success. If you’re at an institution that places obstacles in your path that make it difficult for you to write papers, to find good mentors, and to make scientific connections in your field, then you’ve got a problem. You’re going to be struggling uphill.
However, the same list also provides the recipe for climbing that hill, if you find that you’re on it. The number one thing you can do is to write papers (and preferably interesting and timely ones). People cannot ignore a large body of high quality work for long. Sometimes it takes a while before they notice, it’s true. But the more you publish, the more likely it is that people will begin to notice your work, and be influenced by it. As that happens, they will start noticing you as well, and will tend to deem you “someone worth having around”, whether as a postdoc, or at their conference, or as their next faculty colleague. This process is vastly easier with a good mentor behind you, but if you wound up without one (or gawd forbid with an anti-mentor), it’s going to be your only route out.
I think the clearest evidence of this is a relatively jaw-dropping preprint that was recently posted to the arXiv (h/t to Zuska). A former particle-physics postdoc (and current grad student in statistics) carried out a very detailed analysis of the productivity of postdocs on the Run II Dzero experiment, and how that translated into giving conference presentations, and being hired into faculty positions. The paper found that the postdocs’ success in eventually landing faculty jobs were highly correlated to productivity (as measured by internal papers), to conference presentations (which were awarded by the leadership of the project), and to the degree of “physics socialization”. These correlations are all what you would expect, and reinforce the above list of what leads to being scientifically influential.
The jaw-dropping aspect of the paper is that the awarding of conference presentations was grossly gender biased (as was the fraction of service work assigned to the women). The female postdocs had drastically higher levels of productivity (indeed, half the men were less productive than the least productive woman), but were allocated far fewer conference presentations than men with comparable productivity. (Note: this is a paper you actually have to read, rather than just flipping to the table at the end. It’s a very well-done piece of statistical analysis, and can’t be fully appreciated from just comparing two means in a table.)
In this exercise, we see the influence game writ large. You need to be productive and visible. If some sort of bias (against women, or shy people, or people from state schools, or whomever) is present that conspires to make you less visible, you’re going to have to be even more productive. It’s not fair, and people in positions to fight against the bias in their institution should do so. But, at least it’s something that you have a chance of controlling.