Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Enough with Academic Pedigrees Already

Nearly every introduction of a seminar speaker I have ever seen includes a chronological report on where they got their degrees, where they held their jobs, and – typically – who supervised them at which places and for which degrees. I guess the idea is to provide context and background; yet, and I will be honest here, I find this name dropping awkward and unhelpful. Why should we be forming opinions about a person and their science based on where they worked and who supervised them? Does this not undermine the idea that each scientist is their own person, rather than simply a reflection of their past supervisors? Does this mean that people who had famous supervisors are somehow “better” or that people who did not have illustrious supervisors are somehow “worse”? Should listeners be more excited about a talk once they hear the person was supervised by Darwin – as opposed to Hendry? (OK – yes – they should, but only because they knew Darwin, not because having been supervised by Darwin made them the scientist they are today.)

Perhaps I am a bit more sensitive – or at least attuned – to this awkwardness because my own pedigree is awkward given my current research field. It isn’t that I didn’t have an exceptional supervisor who had a major impact on my career and thinking. I did – his name was Tom Quinn and without him I wouldn’t be here. Moreover, he is a famous scientist who is extremely influential in his field – his work has been cited 25,000 times! It is just that he works in a scientific field – salmon ecology and behavior – that is very different from my field – evolution. Thus, saying his name in front of a bunch of evolutionary biologists will typically evoke blank stares. So does this mean I don’t have a valuable pedigree? Or does it mean that knowing a pedigree is unhelpful?

This focus on pedigree permeates other contexts in science. During job searches, some people on the committee think higher of some applicants simply because they went to Harvard or Yale, or because they were supervised by this or that National Academy Member, or by this or that famous ecologist or evolutionary biologist. And then there are the web sites where you can enter your academic pedigree and (hopefully) link your self to someone super-famous – Odum or Hutchinson (see above) or Elton or whomever.

This is the very incomplete and rather uninformative academic family tree I see when I put my name into academictree.org. (No, I haven't bothered to feed information into the website.)
On the other hand, an illustrious pedigree can work against you in some contexts. For instance, papers in PNAS by students or collaborators of National Academy of Sciences members are always suspect. That is, the publication record of people supervised by famous scientists are often down-graded a bit because the perception can be that the name of their supervisor greased the wheels of publication. In short, being supervised by a famous and influential person can hurt your career chances in some contexts. During the “round table” of an interview for an applicant at McGill, I addressed this elephant in the room by asking the candidate: “So, for your undergrad you work with [Super-Famous Scientist 1], for your MSc you worked with [Super-Famous Scientist 2], for your PhD you worked with [Super-Famous Scientist 3], and for your postdoc you worked with [Super-Famous Scientist 4]. How should we view your work as an independent scientist given such an illustrious set of supervisors? How are we to know how much of the work is yours versus that of your supervisors.” The candidate argued that he was a hybrid of those supervisors, from which something new and original had emerged.

If you disagree with, or are unsure about, my negativity regarding attention paid to pedigrees, reflect on the original context of a pedigree – your ancestors. Pedigree was precisely the old-fashioned elitist perspective that reinforced (and continues to reinforce) class hierarchies and “caste” distinctions that stifle originality, creativity, and progress. If you had the “right” pedigree, it opened doors, made people view you in a more favorable light (independent of who you were as an individual), and helped you pass on that pedigree to your children. If you had the “wrong” pedigree; well …

I suggest that pedigrees be remembered from an historical perspective but be ignored from a contemporary perspective. The work of any given scientist is their own work (with collaborators) and the person should be judged on that basis – should judging be necessary. When introducing speakers, don’t say who supervised them – say what they do and have done and plan to do! Pedigree is irrelevant at best – and damaging at worst.


Note: An important distinction can be made between the academic descendants of an individual (like the Hutchinson tree above), which clearly does reflect one  aspect of an individual's contribution to the field, versus the academic ancestors of an individual (which I am mainly complaining about).

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