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Do Big Names matter?

SLF forsburg at salk.edu
Thu Apr 20 11:34:34 EST 2000

Paul and Karen make some interesting points.  Paul comments:

> Paul S. Brookes. (brookes at uab.edu):
> Have been following this thread for a while, and noticed a few place names
> and phrases coming up frequently.... Harvard, Pennsylvania, California, New
> York e.t.c. It strikes me that the severity of the problems that are
> being described is correlated to the underlying degree of cempetition at
> these institutions. From speaking with friends at "old" universities, it
> seems that competition is not just an issue for women, and exists at
> several levels. ......

> Compare this with the situation in the majority of universities less than
> 50 years old, in the remainder of the US. Funding is easier to
> secure. New posts are always being created so promotion is more
> likely. There are less "old farts" holding onto top jobs and preventing
> younger people from climbing the ladder. There is far more collaboration
> between labs and with individuals at other local universities.
> It would appear that the problems being described WRT families, long hours,
> and discrimination against women are symptomatic of greater problems,
> mainly caused by putting too many people with big egos in a small space and
> not providing them with enough money - is it any wonder they get
> paranoid. Maybe not having a life is just the price to be paid for wanting
> to further oneself by subscribing to the perception that the name of the
> place you work is what matters. If you want a better life, choose your
> institution more carefully.

And Karen replies:

> Karen Wheless (kwheless at rockland.net):

> While this may be true in some fields, I didn't find it to be true in my
> experience. I was a grad student at the University of Georgia, and all
> of the professors in the chemistry department were scrambling for
> funding. The first people to lose their grants were the less known
> professors at lesser schools, not the professors at Harvard

My observations over the years support Karen's model. I think that scientists are as snobby as any one else when it comes to judging their colleagues. Look at the
prominent "Big Guys" in any field--they are , for the most part, at the prestigious institutions. ( Is that because the big name universities spotted budding stars
early and nurtured them along, or that  Big Name U poached them away from more nurturing environments? Probably more the latter than the former....) .  As Paul points
out, they are thus fighting one another for small pots of money and creating an unpleasant, competitive anti-community.

But we are all aware that a Big Name Scientist (at his Big Name School) can publish even marginal work, while smaller-name-scientist at smaller school struggles to
publish even the best.  There is an unspoken attitude amongst many with power and influence (who are also at Big Name U's) that if you are any good, you will be at Big
Name U too. The Big Guys have a lot of influence on study sections, meetings, editorial boards, etc, which allows them to sustain their influence.

If this observation is true, then we may regard the lifestyle vs. perceived career influence as yet another balancing act that we must figure out .  Some people will
not be satisfied career-wise unless they are on the faculty at the Biggest Name U, regardless of the personal cost.  Others are happier to strike a balance between the
snobbism of the Big Name U and their real lives.   The latter is  a more mature solution for things as they are, but ambitious scientists are generally not noted for
their maturity!  ;-)

Meanwhile, I hope the readers of women in bio will continue to storm the barricades and try to change those "rules".



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