Is It Whom You Know?

by Gabriela Montell
Chronicle of Higher Education
July 1, 2005

Graduate students want to believe that success in academe is achieved purely on merit. But you don't have to be a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows to realize that while what you know matters most, it's often whom you know that gets your foot in the door.

Doctoral students assume that "if they just do their work, the cream will rise to the top," says Gene C. Fant, Jr., chairman of the English department at Union University, in Tennessee. "And, yes, that does happen, but it's also helpful to have the dairymen come in and scoop the cream off the top and make sure it goes where it needs to go. Almost no one is completely self-made."

That's where influential advisers or dissertation chairs can help. They not only direct your dissertation, they grant you access to their network of colleagues, Mr. Fant says. And, often, the bigger the name, the bigger, and better, the network.

Your place within the academic hierarchy, says a former graduate student who asked to remain anonymous, "is conditioned by who is above you, who you're working with, and what institution you're at."

"You can't escape that fact," says the former student, who was a protg of Ian Hacking, a renowned professor of philosophy and the history of science at the Collge de France.

But you can make the most of it.

With so many applicants competing for so few tenure-track jobs these days, says this former student and now assistant professor, a personal connection can make the difference between getting an interview and getting ignored. Having a well-known name on your CV and letters of recommendation "drastically increases your chances of surviving the critical phase immediately after graduate school," when you really have yet to establish a scholarly identity of your own, he says. Until you land a job and publish enough to make a name for yourself, "it's one of the only things you've got going for you, although few people are going to explicitly acknowledge that."

Even years later, "who you worked with is still one of the first questions people ask you," and "when you tell people, you can immediately see that it has a certain impact on how they're evaluating you," he adds.

Just ask Warren D. Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution, in Ithaca, N.Y. He says his graduate adviser -- the late, great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould -- was instrumental in helping him land his first job at the University of South Florida in 1988: "He really did everything he possibly could to find us jobs. He jawboned his former students to hire his new students. He picked up the phone -- not just once, but twice, and three times -- and said, 'You've got to hire this guy.' You know, he couldn't make them do it, but he was Stephen Jay Gould. And let's just say that there are a lot of us that have letters in files all over the country, and those letters all say that we're the best student he's ever had."

All of a sudden you're more credible. People are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if someone they admire, or at least have heard of, is willing to stake their reputation on you.

And a reputable adviser's influence isn't limited to hiring. Well-known scholars are usually prolific writers, so they may possess insider knowledge about the publishing industry. They may be able to advise you on which publisher to submit your work to, which editor to call, and how to market your manuscript, Mr. Fant says.

Many Ph.D.'s with influential mentors are reluctant to speak publicly because these career issues are so sensitive. That's the case with a former student of David A. Hollinger, a respected historian at the
University of California at Berkeley, who spoke on condition of anonymity: "David is incredibly well-connected within the publishing industry, so I didn't have to go through the sort of multiple-rejections-of-your-manuscript process at all, and that's largely because he guided me the right way."

Here's how it happened: "After I finished my dissertation, I asked David where I should submit it, and he said, 'I know the editor at [this] press, and they've got a series on American social science. I think it would be interesting for you to publish it in that series so you don't get pigeonholed, and I think you should write a letter that frames it that way.' So I wrote a letter that framed it that way, and it got accepted right away, and I largely credit David, because I wouldn't have known the editor personally, and it wouldn't have occurred to me to write to him directly."

In some ways, the benefits of being affiliated with an influential scholar are small: "It's really just thousands of little things, like people returning your e-mails, and not being dusted off at a conference when you speak to someone," says Mr. Hacking's protg.

Still, most academics agree that while having a big-name adviser opens doors, it's rarely a deciding factor in the hiring process. People don't get very far if they're not good to begin with. And no one gets tenure on the basis of their adviser's reputation.

Having a well-known mentor may help you get to the shortlist, says Sean B. Carroll, a leading molecular biologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But after that, you're on your own.

"Institutions are making a huge investment in each faculty member that they hire," says Mr. Carroll, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "They have to really bet on the best horses.
They're taking into account the recommendations from the breeders, but they're going to go out and really put the candidates through their paces and decide who can really perform."

Finding a tenure-track job still requires a lot of effort and luck -- even with a top pedigree, says Sudhir Venkatesh, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University whose mentor was William Julius Wilson. "You can still fall on your ass," he says.

Take it from these ex-students of big-name intellectuals:

"I don't have a job, so it's not a magic wand," says a protg of Judith Butler, a Berkeley rhetoric professor. "I applied for 60 jobs and 15 postdocs in my first year on the market and I got one postdoc out of the whole lot."

"I went on the market several times and I had the same advisers writing me the same letters more or less," says another former Berkeley student who worked with the noted historian Martin Jay. "My first time on the market, my dissertation was not done, and I got almost no interviews. Then I went out a couple of years later when I was done with the dissertation, and I got more interviews. And then I went out a few years later, when I had a book contract in hand, and I got a lot of interviews. The recommendations and the names of the people I'd worked with were constants throughout that
process. What had changed was that I had become a more mature scholar, with a more proven record, and that's why I got a lot more attention from people."

Name recognition is even less important at teaching institutions, says Mr. Fant, of Union University.

In fact, a recommendation letter from a famous scholar can sometimes be a turnoff to hiring committees at small, teaching-intensive colleges. "We're sometimes more leery about hiring the disciples of big stars," says Paula Krebs, former head of the English department at Wheaton College, in
Massachusetts. She is on leave to work as editor of Academe, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of University Professors.

"We value publication in the long run," Ms. Krebs says, "and we associate big stars with lots of good publications, but we don't necessarily associate them with really good teaching. In fact, we have arguments in our shortlisting meetings sometimes about whether to take a chance or 'waste a slot' on someone who's probably looking for a research institution and not our place because their director is blah-dee-blah, who would never want to send their graduate student to a place like ours."

While working with a famous scholar may open some doors, that professor's own door may not always be open.

"Any time [Martin Jay] had office hours, if you didn't show up a half-hour in advance to get in the queue, you wouldn't see him at all," a former student of his recalls. "The reason he's famous is because he's written a lot of books, and those books were written by himself when he wasn't sitting around advising graduate students. And that's not a knock on him at all; it just means that he has less time."

That's par for the course with influential scholars, says Neil H. Shubin, chairman of the department of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, but it needn't be a problem for independent students.

Patricia Wittkopp, a former student in Sean Carroll's laboratory at Madison, agrees: "There wasn't a lot of day-to-day contact, but I never felt that it was abandonment. I, personally, enjoyed the freedom. And if I sought Sean out, he made time for me. But it is true that if I didn't reach out, six months could go by without us sitting down to talk about anything."

Amy M. Treonis, a protg of Diana H. Wall, the soil ecologist and Antarctic researcher, agrees: "Sometimes I wouldn't see Diana for months, though she was very good on e-mail. So we communicated mostly by e-mail, and I learned how to take a message and take out 75 percent of the words in it, because if I wanted her to respond, I had to pare it down to the barest minimum and get to the crux of the matter quickly."

For students who need a lot of feedback and emotional support, a famous scholar might not be the best mentor. Because they're pressed for time, they can seem abrupt and dismissive at times, which can be frustrating for students.

For example, a former student who worked with Martin Jay recalls that he used "faint praise" when commenting on papers: "If he liked something you had written, he wouldn't say anything or he would simply say, 'Good.' He wouldn't say, 'Oh, this is wonderful! I never thought of this.' He wouldn't write that in margins and he didn't write long notes describing his reactions."

Ms. Treonis, who is now an assistant professor of biology at the University of Richmond, says it was hard "to get used to the brevity and speed of criticism."

"When something was wrong with a paper," she says, "I would get it back with a big red X across the page. And then I would know, OK, that wasn't very good. Those are things you save because they're just hilarious, though at the time they were devastating."

You have to develop a thick skin, says Mr. Allmon, who worked with Mr. Gould. Everyone wants "warm fuzzies once in a while," he says. "Sometimes you just want to be told that you're terrific, but Steve wasn't a warm, fuzzy guy. I have one or two moments where I remember that he said I didn't stink, so I can live off those in my old age."

While such tradeoffs seem like a small price to pay, there are additional reasons to think hard before apprenticing yourself to a prominent scholar -- for example, it may leave you feeling like you are always in someone's shadow.

In graduate school, Mr. Allmon says, he didn't realize the extent to which he would continually be defined by his famous adviser: "Long ago I stopped being offended by being introduced as 'a student of Stephen Jay Gould -- Oh, what's your name?' That has actually happened to me so many times that
I've stopped counting."

"I'm still introduced today as 'a student of Stephen Jay Gould,'" he says, "but they remember my name now."

Moreover, the intellectual offspring of well-known scholars may at times suffer for the sins of their mentors who, after all, have not only admirers, but detractors, too.

So if someone dislikes your mentor, that can carry over to you, says a protg of Judith Butler who did not want his name used. He notes that Ms. Butler occasionally received hate mail, and recalls an instance where an interviewer who had a negative view of his adviser seemed hostile to him.

The interviewer asked him "outrageous and unrelated questions," he says, and then criticized his work: "I gave a paper on 20th-century ethics, and then, out of the blue, she started asking me questions like, 'What would Schiller say to this?' Well, my area of expertise is not Romantic philosophy, but, OK, I'll try. It was sort of aggressive. And then, at one point, she turned to me and said, 'I just find your work to be highly Butlerian,'" he says. "I was really just taken aback, because, I mean, it's just unquestionable that this person has influenced me. But why isn't my work Heideggerian? Because, I mean, it is. She could have said that, but calling my work, 'highly Butlerian,' was her way of getting a dig in."

For graduate students in the sciences, the benefits of partnership with an influential adviser seem to far outweigh the disadvantages -- especially when it comes to grant money.

It's not the professors themselves so much as the things they can offer their students -- perks like access to key field sites, technological resources, and, above all, research dollars, says Mr. Shubin, the biology chairman at Chicago. Major scientists have those things at their disposal.

It's a huge advantage to get into a well-financed laboratory, says Mr. Carroll, the Madison biologist. "It doesn't exclude people from doing great work somewhere where there are fewer advantages," he says, "but you're starting with a leg up, for sure."

His former student, Ms. Wittkopp, agrees. Experiments are expensive, and unless there's a constant influx of money, researchers are limited in what they can do in a laboratory.

"In many labs," she says, "if you have one grant and two graduate students, and somebody spends a year pursuing an idea that at the end of the day goes nowhere, well, you just spent all that time and money, and it's gone. Funding was a nonissue in Sean's lab, particularly because he's a Hughes investigator, so his lab could absorb those losses. And, of course, with those failures come the successes."

She says she felt free to pursue any ideas she had without worrying about who was going to pay for it. "That's an incredible freedom and luxury that most people don't have in the sciences," says Ms. Wittkopp, who starts this fall as an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "Only now that I'm thinking about forming my own lab, am I realizing how spoiled I was."

Mr. Allmon says he now wishes he had been trained better in grantsmanship when he was still in graduate school. "Steve didn't write grant proposals," Mr. Allmon says. "We were all funded by his speaking fees, so funding was not an issue. Now the good news was that we never had to worry about money. The bad news is that we never learned how to write grant proposals, and that did not serve us well when we all got out of the cocoon."

Of course, money isn't everything. Another attraction of working with a well-known scientist is the opportunity to interact with other talented people. "Science is a team endeavor," says Ms. Wittkopp. "Interacting with Sean was important, but perhaps as important was interacting with all the other top-notch scientists that Sean brought to his lab. Because of who he was, the top people in the field wanted to work with him, and so, if you were in that group, you were not only benefiting from Sean's experience, but interacting with the best of the best."

Despite the obvious advantages, most of the professors and former graduate students interviewed for this article said it would be a mistake to choose your mentor solely on the basis of that person's status. Superstars don't have a monopoly on good mentorship, which is as much about having a strong
personal relationship as it is about professional acumen.

"Don't fetishize the big reputation," says a former student of Martin Jay. "It's more important to look for somebody who's going to be able to help you with whatever you need" -- whether that's emotional support or insider knowledge -- "because, at the end of the day, you've got to write the dissertation yourself. They're not going to write it for you."