On Elite Institutions

imageWhen we were finishing our PhDs and trying to decide what to do next, my spouse and I really had no criteria. She works in a non-natural sciences field with a much smaller market for postdocs and jobs, so when she got a great fellowship at an elite USian institution, that decided our move. We did our PhDs somewhere that is not really on the radar of most people in the U.S. I had a mostly great experience and did ok publishing, but was not a golden boy or anything.

I began looking for a postdoc. I was intimidated. I felt the relative obscurity of my PhD institution needed to be balanced out with some postdoctoral name recognition. I had no familiarity with big labs or what I would learn to call BSD culture (we had other terms for it). I emailed about 6 people whose work I was familiar with, putting quite a bit of effort into a detailed and serious expression of interest. Only one of  them bothered to respond to me (with a single line: “I have no space in my lab.” He then went on to hire a postdoc and grad student from “better” places/PIs). I felt defeated already, like coming from my PhD institution meant I was going to be ignored. I then started a more systematic search. I had some idea what kinds of things I wanted to do (which were very different from my PhD), so I made a list of labs of new PIs and ended up interviewing with three labs in three different animal systems. All the young PI’s had postdoc’d in big shot labs, of course and were pedigreed out the wazoo, but all were just starting out, no pubs yet, and all seemed happy to have someone who seemed competent interested in being among their first postdocs.

I picked one. I was freaked out. I had no experience of what an “elite” institution would be like. I worried that all my limitations as a scientist would be exposed and obvious, that I wouldn’t be able to learn the new field or hold my own in seminars, that I wasn’t as smart as the people here, that everyone would be an asshole. This last part was based in part on my undergraduate experience. I went from a huge and diverse Midwestern public high school to a SLAC with a lot of mediocre NE prep school types. At first I couldn’t believe those people were for real, then I wasted a lot of time just hating those fuckers, then finally realized that rich people are just miserable and not worth thinking about. What if my new colleagues were the ultra-assholes that those assholes aspired to be?

Most of you PIs probably know this, so this is for all you trainees with impostor syndrome or other anxieties about your worth and abilities: the deal with elite institutions is that it is all complete bullshit. Compared to anywhere I have been, no one here is smarter. No one has better ideas. No one works harder. There are more assholes, particularly among BSD postdoc d00ds. If people here have more of anything, it’s confidence and networks of influence (these are far from negligible factors). People are less collaborative and less friendly than I am used to, but there are enough fantastic people that it doesn’t matter much. Politics among the BSDs and the oldz is worse. The students are not better or worse, but because they seem to feel they are under more pressure to prove that they deserve to be here, sometimes they make bad science decisions.

This has been a major relief. And my point is this: while elite institutions do have advantages (and I will shamelessly take any advantage that transiently being here gives me), these advantages are positional – the people aren’t smarter and they aren’t better scientists. This is not an insult to anyone who works at these places, most of whom I think would never claim otherwise. Just… don’t worry about it. Be a scientist, not a player.


7 Comments on “On Elite Institutions”

  1. Shridhar says:

    *Respectful golf clap*

    I just worry about the costs of being a scientist instead of doing SCIENZ to my career. It feels for me that the BSD network is one which you can get in only by being a player, and that being an outsider makes your life much harder. *Insert anedoctal evidence of beautiful work from anonymous scientist being less valued than shitty routine work from BSD postdoc d00d.*

    I saw a bunch of job talks (I think they were job talks, they don’t advertise it as such) in my dept few weeks ago. Out of the six: Five candidates came from pedigree, one senior BSD PI seemingly looking to move jobs, three from elite institution (two with star advisors) and one from elite lab in non-elite institution. The other candidate was still from a non-elite big state school and had funding with them – and their PhD was with a BSD. Of the talks, there were only two that impressed me on the science level: one from the BSD who’s doing amazing research and another from a very creative postdoc that’s probably not going to be hired because he lacks communication skills. The other talks had a lot of “I did the logical consequence of my former boss research and I got the results we expected to get”. This is already amazing work, since science is always challenging. But it makes me worry about my career choices: non-asshole, up-and-coming labs, with creative research. Seems that it will be really hard for me to get into the shortlist.

  2. jipkin says:

    people be people everywhere they be – which means there are good ones and bad ones and collaborative ones and isolationist ones and I’d bet the distribution of all that doesn’t jiggle around very much.

    I work in an elite institution (I think) and have found that, at least in my program and in my department, things feel pretty collaborative. Our lab routinely interacts with other labs on our floor. Labs in our area get together for dinner every month. My project is a collaboration between my lab and another one on campus. On the other hand, I’ve heard in other departments that collaboration and interaction are nonexistent. So institutional culture only goes so far – at some point it’s just down to the individual people you interact with.

  3. rxnm says:

    Shridhar, you’re exactly right. I can’t argue that this shit doesn’t matter, just that it doesn’t Matter.

  4. […] On Elite Institutions When Google got flu wrong Six Big Problems With “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure …” When Google got flu wrong Mouse Model of Sepsis Challenged […]

  5. Dave says:

    Just saw the news on twitter and wanted to say congrats. I don’t do the twits unfortunately. Good luck in your new job!

  6. rxnm says:

    Thanks, Dave! Still recovering from the news.

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