Why should I care ?

What difference does it make to me, a faculty in a physics department at a solid, respectable, medium size research university, if my departmental colleagues are successful or not ? Why should I care if they achieve important scientific results, win prizes, receive invitations to speak at prominent conferences, publish on high impact journals, establish research groups that come to be known worldwide ? Why should I get into arguments with my colleagues, when it comes to hiring another one of us, if I believe that the department may be about to bring on someone unlikely to make himself or herself known the to greater scientific community ?

Should I not simply worry that my colleagues, whoever they be, just do their fair share of teaching and service and not disturb me in any way ? After all, don’t my own fortunes depend on me, not on them ? Should collegiality, i.e., whether these are “nice people”, “people I can have a beer with”, be an important hiring criterion ?

Being in a department that enjoys some international prominence as a result of the achievements of its faculty, benefits all of them in a number of ways. Primarily, it puts the department on the map, which in turn means that potential undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral associates, faculty and even administrators, as well as grant reviewers will be more inclined to give it and its faculty due consideration, when it comes to making professional or academic decisions.

The idea that, for instance, the decision of a potential doctoral student of coming to University of Alberta for his/her own physics graduate studies, will depend exclusively or largely on whether (s)he can identify a single suitable PhD advisor in the physics department (and possibly on the graduate stipend), is naive and off the mark, I think. Students understand that their graduate experience will not merely amount to their interaction with that one person; they know that, all things being equal, a department with a lot of well-known faculty, active in many different research areas, attracting smart students and postdocs and regularly hosting famous visitors from all over the world, will make a more exciting and intellectually stimulating place to be.
They also fully understand the importance of reputation; the sticker that faculty and graduates of a university carry with them (in the case of students, for the rest of their lives), affects in many different ways their ability to succeed professionally, including (and perhaps especially) outside academia.

The same is true for a faculty submitting a grant proposal. It is simply wrong to assume that a program director will base the decision of funding it exclusively, or mainly, on the scientific record of the applicant and his/her own individual accomplishments, in disregard for the environment in which the person operates. A program director (and grant reviewers) will normally express skepticism, if the proposal seems too ambitious for the type of human resources on which the investigators can count. If the department at which they are is small in size, does not have a large graduate program and only a modest postdoctoral presence, and most of its faculty are not active in research, this will inevitably make a difference in what can be realistically accomplished by anyone seeking funding. For example, the investigator may not be able to engage graduate students or postdocs easily in his/her research, for the simple fact that there may not be any available, and any program director knows what a huge difference graduate students and postdocs make.

This is why I think I should care whether my colleagues, regardless of their research area, are well-known, respected researchers — don’t get me wrong, if they are “nice people” too, so much the better, but that ought not be an important consideration upon which to base hiring choices. Their success and visibility will generate interest for the place, increase human circulation and promote intellectual exchange, which eventually will trickle down to me. A potential graduate student or postdoc considering to come and work with me will be more inclined to make that decision knowing that they are joining a department that enjoys a strong international reputation. A grant reviewer will be more amicable toward me, if (s)he knows that my department is a place where many good people do good research.

I do not care to be a big fish in a small pond — in science, that is a losing mentality. To use a soccer analogy (I love those), I would much rather be playing major league, even if it means fighting relegation all the time.

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13 Responses to “Why should I care ?”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    And now for something controversial: How many losers are out there, in your opinion, who WOULD in general not be unhappy if their immediate colleagues were not too big a challenge for their egos, and not too strong a competition when it comes to internal treats? And who would not be too sad if the pond got a bit smaller so that they themselves might look bigger?

    One hears stories of such people all the time (far more often than they can possibly be true), and in one case or two, I caught myself having such an uncharitable idea about someone’s behavior, but how much truth do you think is in these rumors? (They do sound rather like scare stories.)

  2. Massimo Says:

    Many. Many. Many. Possibly the majority, I would venture to say.
    I have heard the following comments, or other along the same lines, many times:
    1) We are not after the best person, we are after the best person for this department
    2) Another person in area XYZ ? No way ! I won’t get any more students, then…
    3) I would rather hire two good system administrators than one more faculty
    4) I think it is important not to have any “superstar”, or that would disrupt the harmony…

    • Schlupp Says:

      Weird. Now, I could think of scenarios where some of the comments might be justified, and in the cases I had my suspicions about, I thought that the person thought he was in one of these scenarios, while in fact it was his touchy subconscious feeding him the lines. Still, I don’t get it. I can certainly understand that it might hurt one’s ego to have close interaction with someone who is way out of one’s league. Granted. But isn’t it far – FAR – more annoying to loose out against someone who is NOT really any better, which is bound to happen in a small murky pond? And even more so, if a fish form a small murky pond swims out into the big conference ocean?

      Given that so many people want to be in as small a pond as possible, why do they not move to the smallest pond they are eligible for? And given that people usually use research to asses the sizes of (a) their pond and (b) themselves, why is there consequently not far more competition for jobs at teaching oriented colleges? While Harvaleton would have to scramble to get anyone at all?

    • Massimo Says:

      Schlupp, one thing that I think I am observing, is that hiring tends to happen in bursts. Administrators must rein in escalating costs of hiring faculty in order to keep the institution focused on its mission, which is hiring more administrators; as a result, departments stay for years without bringing in any new faculty, the existing ones age, and all of a sudden you find yourself needing to hire a bunch of new people at once. When you hire people by the bunches, especially if competition for good ones is tough, you end up hiring whomever you can…

  3. El Charro Says:

    I agree that having a department that is known for the quality of their research in all (or many) areas is usually higher ranked in people’s mind than one that only excels in one or two. Certainly the best universities of the world are known to have great education (both undergraduate and graduate) in almost every single major they offer.

    On the other hand, being good in only one area could or could not be good for the university. University of Colorado at Boulder comes to my mind when I think of a place that is veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery good in one area of physics (AMO) but not as good in other fields. I have a few friends there, not in AMO, and they tell me that although the top applicants usually want to work in AMO, they still get great applicants for other areas. I would consider CU-Boulder a success story in that sense. They can slowly grow in the other areas without having a decline in the quality of the grad students/postdocs they get.

    But, take the University of Houston with Paul Chu in their roster. From what I hear from friends there is that they have a hard time getting competitive students (especially domestic ones) on a regular basis. I know superconductivity is out of fashion, but still. Chu has a good share of fame. If you then throw in Shuheng Pan you’d think UH is a good place to be a student at. Somehow, having good people in one area hasn’t really helped Houston that much.

    Did you, as a student or postdoc, interact much (or anything at all) with people from other fields that were not yours? Of course you take classes (for example the core ones) with professors from all kinds of areas, but this is not what I mean. I want to know if you, or anyone who reads this blog and cares to comment, advanced their research because of interaction with people from other areas. All I can think of is that being good in many areas will get you famous colloquia speakers from which you could learn something that is outside of your field. Of course, this assumes that the speaker is actually good at presenting his/her stuff. So far, I’ve found that is a bad assumption to make in most cases 😦

    Disrupt the harmony? hahaha, I think that is the best one.

    • Schlupp Says:

      As a student, I had quite some interaction with people doing something in a different field, but using somewhat similar methods as I used. I only got two conference papers out of it, so not much in this sense, but the interaction helped me to stay sane. (Hm, make that “As sane as I did manage to stay.”) And I got pay for 4 months and learned a lot about a topic that is useful every once in a while. I also had some interaction with people nearer to my field (let’s say about a similar distance as doing theory for AMO and for superconductivity), which led to a nice paper.

    • Massimo Says:

      What you are referring to is different than what I am talking about. The idea is that one should care whether or not one’s colleagues are good, regardless of their research area. Whether or not it is better to have a presence in all areas or focus in one is a matter of opinions (the right opinion being that it is better to have a presence in all areas… gawd I love that this is my blog 😀 ).

      Now, seriously, first of all, there are very practical considerations: most PhD graduates do not continue in academia, and the private sector does not know nor care about one’s PhD thesis, publication record or invited talks. The reputation of the university trumps almost everything else. So, anything that can be done to put the department and the university on the map should be done even for that purpose.
      As a graduate student I interacted a lot with students in other fields, but you may argue that those were particular times; I was interested in statistical and computational physics, and those were the early days of lattice QCD — theory students from high energy physics were regularly talking to their condensed matter colleagues, took specialized classes together, went to the same talks and used similar methods.

      • El Charro Says:

        When did I say I didn’t agree (especially after being threaten to either agree with you or not get my comments posted, :P) with your opinion?

        I was just pointing out that in some cases, no, let me say that again, in very few cases, being really good in one area only is not as bad as it may sound. But yes, ideally you’d want to raise the level/fame of the other areas as time goes by.

        mmm, it might be my area or the place I am in, but I only interact socially, not scientifically, with people from other areas. I do interact with my friends, which are working on different fields, but I don’t interact with them because they are from other areas (some of them using similar techniques) but because they are my friends. The department I am in is relatively large, but I’d say this is the common trend.

  4. Successful Researcher Says:

    This reminds me of the old wisdom “First-rate people hire first-rate people; second-rate people hire third-rate people” by Leo Rosten.

    • Massimo Says:

      SR, I am not sure, I don’t regard myself as first rate — to me it is a no-brainer though. I mean, even from the most selfish standpoint, I shall always stand to benefit from having colleagues who enjoy a better reputation than me…

  5. Successful Researcher Says:

    Massimo, I understand what you mean and I do agree with the idea of your post. Moreover, I think that if the department has a majority of people sharing your point of view on hiring, the scientific level of the place will eventually go up, as a result of good hires, and there will be a fighting chance for the department to become first-rate (or at least reasonably good) in the long run. That’s what I roughly had in mind while posting the above quote.

  6. Doug Natelson Says:

    I have a colleague from Cornell who put it this way: “I aspire one day to be the dumbest person in my department.” Always hire better than the status quo if possible! Anyone who says differently is, well, dumb.

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