A study about the predictors of a successful research career (i.e., more publications) has been making the rounds in the media — at least those outlets that publish press releases of new and provocative research. In “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists [download],” William Laurance, Carolina Useche, Susan Laurance, and Corey Bradshow found that biologists who published earlier in their careers have a (minor) advantage in their publication success over time. Interestingly, the prestige of one’s university had no effect. Women faced a disadvantage, as did scholars whose first language is not English.
So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.”
Reproducing Inequality By Ignoring It
Um, hello? “[L]anguage and gender appear to contribute to one’s research success, with male academics and native English speakers having a modest advantage” (p. 821).
“For women scientists, it’s just not a level playing field, and we need to find ways to help them advance professionally,” Professor Bradshaw said [source].
If we continue to advise graduate students in this way, telling them “dude, seriously, publish,” women, on average, will always come up short compared to men. This is for two reasons. First, this ignores the consistent evidence that women face barriers in productivity and publishing. An analogy would be having two runners compete in a race: a woman wearing a blindfold with her legs tied together, and a man without those constraints — and, the woman starts out 20 feet behind the man. This is while their shared coach is shouting, “run faster! pick up your feet and run!” So, every time what men can and do accomplish is held as the standard of success, women are less likely to be seen as qualified, successful, or productive.
Second, “dude, seriously, publish,” is a great example of the supposed gender-neutral (read: masculinist) style of mentorship that many professors take. Oh, I have lost count the number of times I have witnessed mentors give advice in the form of policing their students’ gender expression. “Don’t do that — that’s girly!” “Man up.” “No more of this ‘shy guy’ stuff.” Sometimes, that spills over into attempts to control the reproductive choices of one’s students and colleagues: “don’t have a baby until after tenure”; “if you must, pop one out during winter break so you can get back to research.” I have seen gender-policing cost candidates a job: “she looks too much like a party girl.” So, the advice is more than “seriously, publish”; it is also to be a “dude.” Then, you will really be successful.
The Quantitative Claws Are Coming Out
And, another thing! This study’s findings are based on this sample: “established academics includ[ing] 113 male and 69 female subjects. Over 60% of those in our sample (116) were native English speakers” (p. 819). That is 182 biologists around the world. Yes, that is a small sample.
Let me dig in a little more. These were scholars who “(1) had completed their PhD before 2000 (giving us a 10-year window after the PhD to assess publication success) and (2) had an updated copy of their curriculum vitae (CV) available online (i.e., with information on their publication record, as well as data on gender, the year of PhD completion, and the university from which the PhD was granted)” (p. 818). Their analyses considered gender, language, year of first publication relative to the conferral of their PhD, and the prestige of their current university. So, other axes of inequality were not considered (e.g., race and ethnicity, parental and marital status). Tenure status was not considered. The country or continent scholars are in was not considered.
Oh, and their outcome “included only peer-reviewed papers in journals listed in the Web of Science, regardless of whether the researcher was the lead author. Of course, our response variable does not include other measures of scientific success, such as the number of citations a researcher receives” (p. 818). Order of authorship was ignored. Number of co-authors, if any, was ignored. Other journals were ignored.
To Be Fair
Let me stop there. My intention is not to trash the authors’ work. They are honest about the limitations of their data and analyses. What does concern me is the uncritical uptake of their findings by blogs and science news outlets. In general, there is not enough caution expressed, given the limited sample. Statements like those below feel a bit overblown in the absence of a large, representative, diverse sample:
It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.
By far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.
The take-home message: publish early, publish often.
To be fair, that means the findings regarding gender (and language) may be overblown as well, though there is prior research pointing to gender inequality in research. However, the “minor disadvantage” they found for women and scholars whose first language is not English may appear smaller because of the small number of those scholars in the sample.
A Personal Rant
The presupposition of a good, one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring graduate students is so problematic. That is simply bad for students of marginalized backgrounds — the assumption that they can be mentored as though they are no different from white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities. The challenges are not the same, nor are the reasons for pursuing higher education in the first place. This also overlooks that those challenges then translate into indirect disadvantages for one’s students; apparently, the way to go for students of color is to find a white man professor as their primary advisor [download report on this here].
This universal approach to mentoring (read: mentoring white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities) also reinforces what is expected of newly minted PhDs. Each time my graduate department hired, I attended the job talks and paid attention to how candidates were treated and talked about thereafter. I even served on my department’s executive committee one year that we hired a few people. The message I learned was open searches were for the best candidate out there — that is, a sole-authored publication in the #1 or #2 journal of our discipline. Ironically, the students who typically accomplished that as a student of our program were heterosexual white cis men. Yes, it left me a little bitter that I was leaving with a PhD from an institution that would never see me as qualified enough for a faculty position. But, of course, there was the “target of opportunity,” the option of coming through the side door (in my humble opinion) for candidates of color.
But, I did start publishing “early.” I had a co-authored publication by my third year, and a solo-authored piece by my fifth. Realistically, to have any chance of publishing in the top three journals of my discipline, I would have had to stay in graduate school two, maybe even three, additional years. That is, I could have a shot of achieving the records of past (white heterosexual cisgender men) superstars if only I stayed another 2-3 years.
What really, really pisses me off is that marginalized students end up disadvantaged as they progress through their graduate training, but had to start off exceptionally to be admitted in the first place. Top-tier programs are not accepting “average” women, students of color, and other marginalized students. One must overcome the “black tax” and the “female tax” and other barriers to have an equal shot at being accepted into a graduate program. That means, on average, we are already starting off stronger, more exceptional than our privileged peers.
If you take away the obstacles we then face during grad school, we should be outperforming our privileged colleagues. But, because of those obstacles, we do not even end up on equal footing — we still come up short, and have to consider setting our sights lower or even taking a “diversity hire” position to get into top-ranked places. For myself, finishing “early” (6 years relative to the typical of 7-9 years) means I could have finished even earlier, or had a publication in the top journal within the same six-year time frame, if I did not have to trudge trough the homophobic and racist crap built into academia. Yeah, I’m not bitter at all.
The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students [source].
Yeah, that is only the tip of the iceberg of problems with graduate mentoring. Our approach to mentoring graduate students cannot ignore who they are, their interests and plans, and their background. This does them a disservice, treating them as interchangeable with any other student (though professors hardly see themselves as interchangeable). And, it likely plays some role in reproducing inequality. For those who successfully pursue academic careers, marginalized students, on average, will always come up short, thus facing a disadvantage on the job market. (Since there is inequality in pay by university prestige, once again, academia is reproducing racial and gender inequality.)
But, we must also worry about those who pursue “alternative” careers or drop out all together. Seeing and finding mentors who “look like us” is still a challenge because they are few and far between, especially further up the university rankings. We must weigh between a white heterosexual cisgender man professor as our mentor for success reasons, and a mentor who comes from the same marginalized background for understanding and support on our terms. It is important to “go rogue” and pave your own career path, but too many marginalized students end up going it alone because they cannot find suitable mentors. And, telling them, “dude, seriously, publish,” is not helpful, or may even exacerbate their problems.