Where is the networking sleaze-line?

Oct 31 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Relating to this article on how to maximize your changes of landing an academic position.

Bashir story time:

A few years ago I’m chatting with a prof in my department. Let’s call him Prof Ted. We’re talking about mentoring and he tells the story of how great his graduate school mentor was. When Prof Ted graduated in the early 1990s from Prestigious WestCoast Uni he actually had 0 publications. Zero. But his graduate advisor knew that he was a very smart man who deserved a job at a university. So his advisor called up people he knew at other universities and made it so. Prof Ted got the job he now holds, at a pretty nice university with zero publications to his name, but one phone call.

After relaying that story Prof Ted just kind of nodded at me, as if to say see isn’t that a great story?

I nodded back, but overall I don't’ think I had the reaction that Prof Ted was expecting. It seemed to cross the "networking sleaze-line", not to mention the "old boys club" line. Would my reaction be different if Prof Ted didn't come from a prestigious university and wasn't part of the demographic that dominates my homogenous department?

19 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Does he have pubs now? Was the confidence well placed?

    • Bashir says:

      I suppose so. He's done pretty well.

      • qaz says:

        But this isn't really the question, is it? The control group is not whether this person did well or not. The control group is whether someone not as well networked would do as well if given the same chance.
        The truth is that lots of junior people would end up doing well in professor jobs. This person got into the job without a track record. Would someone not as well networked get that chance? Of course, much of our job is networking - that's how you get those fancy journal papers, right? So maybe the better measure isn't GlamourMag papers, but rather how well networked you are?

  • […] has an interesting anecdote about a faculty hire he is familiar […]

  • Dave says:

    According to the Eisens of this world, this is fairly common in their circles.

    • I don't think that's their argument -- their argument is not that publications aren't important, but that the cliched first-author _Nature_ or _Science_ paper isn't as all important as some make it out to be.

      • Dave says:

        Yeh I get that, but in my field - and I would bet most biomedical research fields - it is certainly a challenge to find new hires without CNS-level pubs.....and many of them.

        That's why a lot of us just don't believe these anecdotes, or brush them off because the fields are so different (in this case, very different).

  • On a similar note to the Prof Ted story, I've read that the famous Watson and Crick paper was never peer reviewed -- their mentor (the Nobel Laureate William L. Bragg) basically wrote to _Nature_ and said "this is important -- publish it ASAP", so they did. Isn't having powerful friends wonderful?

    • qaz says:

      Don't forget that peer review is rather new. One of Einstein's papers (I think it was the one on the cosmological constant) was famously reviewed and critiqued (apparently correctly finding some flaws in the calculations). Einstein famously pulled the paper from the journal, writing to the editor that "I sent this paper to be published not to be reviewed."

    • Pinko Punko says:

      I don't think many journals had organized peer review at that time. Or at least specifically Nature did not.

      qaz pretty much has it right above on the system. There are lots of smart, great people that don't get jobs because they aren't in the network. I will say that some institutions will take this approach because they think they are "buying low"- perhaps identifying critical or cutting edge scientists they otherwise might not be competitive for. This isn't an excuse. The network is not fair. The system lacks fairness.

  • Mum says:

    Let's not forget that this was in the early 1990's. Looking at the CV's of some senior people I know, they had two or three pubs at the time they got their first faculty positions in late 80's, early 90's. None of them had a sizeable grant for several years. Sure, $5k was more money in the 90's, but if that's what I got in the first 3 years as faculty they give me the boot. I doubt this happens now.

  • rs says:

    In some field (Physics for example), it was not uncommon not to have publication at the end of PhD. If student attempted an original problem and worked to solve it, it was considered good enough. Emphasizing on publications is based on emphasizing on techniques rather than solving blue sky problems. This ensures that people wil pay less attension even to attempt impossible looking problems. Having publications doesn't guarantee a vision in science.

    • qaz says:

      I tell my students that nothing exists until its published. One of the hardest things in science is carrying the results through until they actually are at a point that they can be presented to colleagues. I would argue that an ability to do good work on a problem but not carry it through to publication is a potential danger sign. Working on a Blue-Sky problem is great, but one has to learn how to present one's work so that others can carry on from it.

      Remember that the whole point of the scientific journal is the ability to publish partial results. Before journals (1500s) there were monographs that took decades to write. The journals allowed a partial story to be told.

      A student who cannot take his thesis and turn it into something to report to the scientific literature is incomplete.

      (There is an issue with a difficulty in publishing negative results. But I would say that the difficulty is that negative results don't get published, don't get known, and don't get included in the scientific literature.)

  • Mum says:

    rs, could you explain what you mean by Blue Sky problems? I have not seen that expression.
    I can see how the requirement to publish could lead to less attention to some type of problem. But I wouldn't go as far as saying that if someone published during their PhD, then they must not have attempted a big problem (not sure that this is what you mean by Blue Sky). Publishing could just mean that the process was split into parts of sufficient interest, whether the project was successful as a whole or not. Isn't that part of what a good project is supposed to be?

  • […] Causal inference from observational data How much do cats kill? ‘Big Data’ Is Bunk, Obama Campaign’s Tech Guru Tells University Leaders Palm Oil Is Everywhere. Here’s What to Do About It. Where is the networking sleaze-line? […]

  • namnezia says:

    I know three people who got jobs under these circumstances. One is doing OK, probably will get tenure. One never published anything as an independent scientist either and did not get tenure. The third never published anything, but managed to get a SECOND position in another uni based on the strength of a SECOND phone call. Now she has 2 pubs in 10 years of independent position.

  • Life is not fair; neither is getting a academic job.

  • bad wolf says:

    Well, i while ago i pointed out a similar situation with a recent hire in chemistry at another blog, and was roundly criticized for my misogyny, failure of vision and other shortcomings. It's still possible.

  • Anonymous says:

    I know one person who obtained a tenure-track assistant professorship with no publications from their postdoc. I also know who their competitors were; all of them had better publication records and one of them had published about a dozen first-author papers during their postdoc alone. I could add other astonishing details about this situation, but I won't because I don't want to be identified. Meanwhile, I know all this because I am personally acquainted with everyone involved.

    This didn't happen in the '90s. This happened last year.

    I actually like the person who got the professorship. I think they are smart, put-together, driven and hardworking, and I admire all of these qualities. But my admiration doesn't blind me to the fact that in this case at least "networking" had a powerful effect on everyone involved. Also, popularity.

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