Rumors and such

The avalanche effect has become a more-or-less permanent fixture of academic hires in physics [0] at the tenure-track level in the United States. This is how it roughly works: each year the community of academic physicists identifies few young scientists as the rising stars within their subfield of research. These are typically recent graduates of top notch physics departments, who obtained their PhD working under the supervision of a prominent scholar, and then did one or two postdoctoral appointments at comparably high-profile institutions.
That same year, these few “elects” will net offers from most universities advertising tenure-track faculty positions in their fields of expertise. Often times, “bidding wars” literally ensue among universities and departments, in order to convince one of these highly desired candidates to sign on. As a result, these lucky job-seekers end up with salaries and other perks that make some of their senior colleagues resentful and jealous… but that’s another story.
This is of course nothing out of the ordinary. A similar effect occurs in all walks of life, including professional sports. Indeed, the situation in academic physics (possibly academia in general) is reminiscent of that of the Italian Soccer League.

These are the analogies:

  1. A mere three serie A clubs (Juventus FC, AC Milan and Inter FC) enjoy far greater financial means, prestige and visibility than all the other 17 serie A teams. This situation exists in academic science as well, as most scholars and students will readily acknowledge the existence of a significant gap separating, say, the top 5 to 10 departments in a given discipline, from the rest of the pack.
  2. Unlike in the National Football League, where there is a draft, in which underperforming teams have priority at picking first-time eligible players, in Italy’s serie A, as well as academia, competitive offers can be made by anyone to anyone all the time.
  3. Most soccer-talented youngsters dream of playing for one of the above-mentioned three clubs, not only because their salary will be higher, but also (and possibly primarily) because playing for one of them will almost guarantee a spot on the international stage to players hungry for success, and eager to showcase their talent. This is closely paralleled by academia, as most promising young scholars will see greater opportunities for success in joining more prominent schools.
  4. Every Summer, as franchises are frantically at work to sign up new players and strengthens their squads, the names of few youngsters deemed by the press as those with the greatest potential, will dominate the sport headlines. As soon as one of the big teams is rumored to be after one of them, all other teams mobilize to pursue the same player. Likewise, as soon as someone’s name comes up in conversations among scholars at different institutions, or is featured in a couple short lists at the Job Rumor Mill, invitations for on-campus interviews from other departments quickly follow.
  5. A common feature to all “rising stars”, is that they are all essentially unproven. They may all display (and talk) the game of a superstar, but it is simple statistical observation that many of them will not succeed, for many different reasons, including physical or psychological. A few years later, they may be completely forgotten. Postdoctoral scientists who have co-authored excellent articles, but have no track record of their own, are in many respects in a similar situation.
  6. Although most serie A franchises will take a stab at luring in the one promising young player picked by the press as the best in his role, almost invariably the “new Maradona” will in the end sign up for one of the three superpowers. Likewise, string theory’s “new Maradona” will in the end join the ranks of one of the usual suspects (offers from second-tier institutions will be typically used to leverage a better deal at the desired destination).

The analogy between academia and Serie A breaks down after all the rising stars of that year have signed up for their new teams, and the dust has settled. At that point, second-tier clubs and departments find themselves with unfilled positions. Now, a soccer team that has failed to attract the goalie wanted by everyone else (who will be playing next season for AC Milan) still needs a goalie. They cannot play without one. Therefore, they will be patiently looking for a good, solid second choice. Possibly, someone overlooked by the major teams will be picked, or maybe someone who was himself regarded as a “rising star” a few years earlier, did not live up to the expectations, but may be considered worthy of a second chance.
In academia, on the other hand, increasingly common is the decision to forgo the hire altogether, following the failure at attracting the candidate wanted by everyone else. “We cannot settle for second best”, is what I hear time and again from colleagues, including some who work at universities and departments not even ranked in the top 50 nationwide… quite often vacancies remain unfilled for years, until the search is cancelled by the university administration (i.e., the position is lost).

The desire to hire the best possible colleagues is obviously understandable, and commendable; settling for a mediocre candidate, just to be “done and over with it” is a terrible idea. At the same time, the notion that it’s going to be “either the best or nobody else” seems a little too draconian, unrealistic, and likely detrimental in the long run. First off, it is often the case that the difference between the “best” and “second best” (or even “third best” and so on…) is not actually as large as advertised. Moreover, a department that remains undersized for a long time, with one or more major current research areas either under-represented or absent, will hardly attract many potential students, and risks being “taken off the map”, eventually.

Let’s go back to the serie A analogy; how do second-tier clubs manage to pull the upset, every once in a while, and win the championship (seldom, but it does happen) even without fielding any superstar ? I have been following serie A for over thirty-five years, and the key seems to be assembling a group of players capable of functioning well collectively, even though none of them may be individually “stellar” (obviously, they all have to be very good, “serie A level” players). Those teams are typically characterized by a no-nonsense type game, perhaps not as flamboyant and spectacular as the top three, but rather one that is concrete, orderly and effective, and in which each player places the interest of the team ahead of his own agenda.
I am thinking that maybe this notion can be extended to physics departments as well… I do have some criteria in mind that departments that operate like the underdog teams described above would fulfill, and I even think I could identify some of them in North America. OK, maybe the soccer analogy does not work for you. Still, it seems silly for so many second-tier departments to keep going through the annual ritual of being snubbed by the few best candidates and snubbing the many remaining good ones, wasting in the process precious time that should be used to rejuvenate rapidly aging faculties.


[0] Web sites such as the Condensed Matter and Atomic Physics Rumor Mill make it easy to observe it directly, but I think the avalanche effect has existed for quite a while, long before the advent of the internet.

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