Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why are papers important for getting faculty positions?

Loved Lenny's post about how a high profile paper out of your postdoc is not required for many positions in academia. The list he has is pretty good proof of that fact, and I know firsthand from my own experience–I think my "big postdoc paper" was just submitted by the time I had my last interview.

I think it's important to keep in mind, though, that the existence of such examples is not a proof that there are no causal connections between the two. I think a lot of this is field dependent as well as institution dependent. For instance, I definitely feel like my job search might have been easier with a published paper, especially in biology/medical departments. And I have definitely heard of places, for example in other countries, in which applicants have been explicitly told that the job is theirs if and only if their postdoc paper is accepted. And I have heard this multiple times, so it was not a one-off.

Why? If the search committee understands the work and the researcher and believes in them both, then why does the existence of an accepted high profile paper matter so much in and of itself? A big part of the answer is that visibility matters.

One thing I realized after starting my faculty job was that starting a lab is a hard business, and part of that business is getting people interested in your research. There are tons of people out there doing science. Why should someone want to join your lab? Why should anyone care about your work? Why should anyone give you funding to do this work? Why should you be the one to succeed when everyone else is out there doing good science as well? Having a high profile paper when you start is undeniably a part of the answer to these questions. And it’s also a simple metric of success that is readily interpreted by people across disciplines.

Departments generally want the people they hire to succeed. There are many reasons why it's a lot easier to succeed if you have a fancy paper as you are starting your lab. It helps in recruiting students and postdocs, and in getting grants and getting invited to talks. Same thing goes for coming from the lab of a big-name PI. The big-name PI will be out talking about your work at venues and forums that you can only dream about as a junior PI. These are all different pieces of the puzzle, and nice papers are for sure an important piece of that puzzle, for better or for worse. And the fact is that there is at least some correlation between where you publish (especially averaging over time) and the quality and importance of your work. Not a perfect one for various reasons, and I hate the current publishing system, but it is disingenuous to pretend that this is not the case.

I'm sure many people out there are saying "It should all be about the science, not where it's published or who you worked with or all that other stuff." Sure, sounds nice in theory, but in practice, it's harder than people think. Imagine you are in the market for a washing machine. You go to the store and there are hundreds of washing machines to choose from. Some come from name brands, some are completely unknown. Some of name brand ones are rated in Consumer Reports by a handful of "washing machine experts", and some are rated much higher than others. Which one would you buy? Now imagine you are in the market for a colleague for at least the next 6-7 years, hopefully the next 30-40+ years, and you will be investing millions of dollars in this person and be interacting with them regularly on a professional basis. Their success or failure will reflect directly on your department. You better believe people make a pretty considered decision here. And yes, visibility matters. Personal connections matter. Papers matter. Your personality matters. Your science matters. EVERYTHING matters. Seriously, think about it: how could it possibly be otherwise?

1 comment:

  1. Agree that papers help, disagree that obsessing with getting those papers into Nature helps.