Monday, November 26, 2007

Money + Connections = academic success

The title is a bit sarcastic, but I don't mean it to be. Sometimes I'm naive: I took years to realize how important money and connections were since my professors in college and graduate school always had both, so I took their benefits for granted until I started traveling on my job market tour and seeing how estranged people in remote places felt from the places they perceived as being the academic center. I didn't realize that there was an academic center, really. It hardly seemed like much was really happening where I was, or at the other "in" schools, that was any different from most other schools, until I noticed how much benefit came from the networks and funding.

It's hardly a salacious revelation that funding buys useful implements, such as graduate students. To middle class people raised to be slightly disdainful of materialism, the fact that money can be useful is nonetheless sometimes surprising, both in their professional and personal lives. Before I started grad school, I was speaking to a postdoc, and he said that when he was 22 he knew he was not materialistic --- he had no interest in fancy tastes --- but now that he is married and wants to have a child, he wants to live in a house with a yard in a good school district, and for the first time he realized that the financial trade-offs he made by choosing to go to graduate school instead of medical school had a real impact on the life he wanted to live. The lack of clarity is not limited to academics, of course: I know a couple where both are clergy members, and the wife once told me, "There's nothing more materialistic than having to watch every penny." She had been feeling awfully materialistic lately, it seems.

Professionally, I'm starting to see her viewpoint: there is a great deal of freedom to be able to make professional decisions such as going to as many useful meetings as you can, to get supplies that make substantial contributions to the work, and not economize where the work or its dissemination might otherwise be better.

So to say that job decisions should be made on the basis of some kind of pure motives of intellectual curiosity is patently ridiculous, but one of the myths that goes along with academia's disdain for mentions of money. If the choice is to study the most important subjects in the world without the resources to do more than a merely adequate job, versus to study marginally less important subjects with enough resources to do a bang-up job, it seems clear to me that marginally less important wins out. As pragmatic as I am, even this next step makes me feel a little strange: it also seems to follow that jobs should be chosen not just for the intellectual opportunities, but for the funding opportunities that they might open up.

So given the choice between working with someone with fantastic funding so the potential for continued collaboration over the long term, and someone who has not particularly good funding, the less-funded person and their projects would have to be pretty darn amazing to be better than the well-funded one.

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