One does not demonstrate “genius” by being the first over the line to answer a question that a whole bunch of other people know is the question and are likewise pursuing. Particularly when the thing that lets you “win” is access to some particular datum that someone else just doesn’t happen to have right now.

Genius is more credibly associated with answering questions that no other scientist even realizes is the key question yet.

Some DAOTI asked a silly question

got the simple answer of “no”, demanded data and was summarily mocked. For this he got all fronty.

because of course he already knew the answer he wanted to hear in response to his question.

This all arose in the wake of an article in the Boston Globe about the postdoc glut that contained this hilariosity.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

I bolded for the slower reader. My initial reaction was:


On to the point.

The world of “R1, TT” positions in science is incredibly diverse, yes, even within “biomedical” or just plain “biology”. I repeatedly urge postdocs who feel helpless about the glut of postdocs to start by doing some research. Find out ALL of the people who have recently been hired all across the US in jobs that are somewhat remotely related to your skillset. Note, not your “interests”. Your SKILLSET!

I follow this up with a call to do the same on RePORTER to find out about the vast diversity of grants that are funded by the NIH. Diversity in topic and diversity in geographical region and diversity in University or Department stature.

This is even before I tell people to get their “R1” noses out of the air and look seriously at Universities that are supposedly beneath their notice.

So what makes for a successful “competitor” for all of the jobs that are open? Is it one thing? Such as “vertically ascending eleventy systems buzzword biology science” training? That is published in Nature and derives from a 12+ postdoc lab with everyone busily trying to hump the same pantsleg?

“Everyone” here is, guess what? Your competition. And yes, if you choose to only seek out “R1, TT” jobs that are in a University that boatloads of people want to work in, applying techniques to topic domains that a dozen fellow postdocs are also doing right beside you, chasing CNS “gets” that a few scores of labs worldwide are also chasing…well, yes, you are going to be at a disadvantage if you are not training in one of those labs.

But this doesn’t also mean that making all of those choices is not also putting you at a disadvantage for a “R1, TT” job if that is your goal. Because it is putting you at a disadvantage.

Vince Lombardi’s famous dictum applies to academic careers.

Run to Daylight.

Seek out ways to decrease the competition, not to increase it, if you want to have an easier career path in academic science. Take your considerable skills to a place where they are not just expected value, but represent near miraculous advance. This can be in topic, in geography, in institution type or in any other dimension. Work in an area where there are fewer of you.

Given this principle, no, a big lab does not automatically confer an advantage to obtaining a tenure-track position at an R1 university. According to Wikipedia the US has 108 Carnegie-approved “Very high research activity” Universities. Another 99 are in the next bin of “high research activity” and this includes places that would be quite reasonable for someone who wants to be an actual teaching + research old school professor. I know many scientists at these institutions and they seem to be productive enough and, I assume*, happy to be actual Professors.

Would coming from a big lab be a help? Maybe. But often enough search committees at R1s (and the next bin) are looking for signs of independent thought and a unique research program. That is hard to establish in a big lab…far easier to demonstrate from a lab with one or two concurrent postdocs. Other times, the “big labs” in a field (say, Drug Abuse) are simply not structured like they are in cannon-fodder, bench-monkey, GlamourHumping, MolecularEleventy labs. Maybe this is because the overall “group” organized around the subject has Assistant Professors where those “big labs” have Nth year “postdocs”. Maybe it is because this just isn’t the culture of a subfield. If that is the case, then when an R1 is hiring in your domain, they aren’t expecting to see a CV that competes with three other ones just like it from people sharing your lab. They are expecting to see a unique flower with easily discernible individual contribution to the last three years of work from that small lab. That type of candidate has an advantage for this particular job search.

So yeah. It is a stupid question to ask if [single unique training environment] confers an “advantage” for some thing as general as a tenure-track job at an R1 University.

I’ll close with a tweet from yesterday:

and a followup

This all reminds me of a famous Twitter “independent scientist” jackhole who applied to a few elite Universities, couldn’t get an offer and summarily declared all of science to be broken, corrupt, crowded with “diversity” riff raff and all sorts of other externalizing excuses. Make sure you don’t fall into this trap if you are serious about succeeding in an academic career.
*actually, they say so.