I've often thought it was strange that one's value as a scholar is determined largely on the basis of one's research, yet one's ability to perform "good" (in quantitative and qualitative terms) research is based largely on the type of institution where one works.

Consider the following scenario: Scholar A gets a job at an R1 straight out of grad school. Scholar A therefore has a light teaching load, generous sabbatical, a large research budget and so on. As a result, Scholar A goes on to publish prolifically in top journals. Scholar A's professional profile rises. The university that hired him pats itself on the back for having made the right bet in hiring him, since, of course, he turned out to be a "top" scholar.

Scholar B, meanwhile, attended the same graduate institution as Scholar A, and wrote a dissertation that was deemed equally meritorious. Due to the vicissitudes of the academic job market, however, Scholar B ends up with a first job at a teaching-focused college rather than an R1. Saddled with a 3/3 teaching load and few opportunities for internal research funding or protected research time, Scholar B publishes little, and most of what he does publish is in second-tier journals. Even if he is a great teacher, he remains unheard of within his field, since status is determined mostly on the basis of research. Consequently, people who look at Scholar B's academic record ten or twenty years after his Ph.D. confidently conclude that he is a mediocre scholar, who would never have been fit for an R1 that hires top scholars.

This would seem unfair. Scholar B might have been just as productive research-wise as Scholar A, had the former had the good fortune of working at an institution that facilitated an aggressive research agenda. But Scholar B ends up being deemed "not very smart" because he produces little research.

In other words, it has always seemed to me that scholarly success is in many ways a self-fulfilling prophecy. The R1s that pride themselves on hiring "top" scholars don't actually pick or attract the right people as much as they create the conditions that allow one to turn into a top scholar (in a world where, again, that status is based mostly on your research).

I happen to be a tenured faculty member at an R1 university, with a publication record that I am quite proud of. But I'd be lying to myself if I said that I would have published as much -- and earned the reputation I have in my field -- if I'd spent the years since my Ph.D. working in a more teaching-heavy place.

I'm also in the humanities. I'm not sure whether the trend I describe above exists in the sciences.

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    This seems a bit opinion based, but a lot of it boils down to dedication. If you want to do research, make sure you work at a solid research institution. – Daniel Goldman Nov 29 '17 at 17:40
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    @DanielGoldman Dedication and place of work are orthogonal properties. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 29 '17 at 17:45
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    "I'm also in the humanities." I think that's a key sentence and perhaps should go further towards the top. In most STEM fields neither of your scholars has the most common academic trajectory: rather, most STEM PhDs who want to continue an academic research career take one or more postdocs. Postdocs still differ in teaching loads but not as much: 2/2 would be a heavy teaching load for a postdoc. And you can do more than one postdoc. Certainly I've seen lots of people in "worse" postdocs be more productive than people in "better" postdocs. – Pete L. Clark Nov 29 '17 at 17:50
  • What is the question? Obviously, if you have the time to do research, you will do more research than if you don't have time to do it. – Thomas Nov 29 '17 at 18:01
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    In STEM fields, not really. Your "quality" is typically a measure of how much you are willing to sacrifice, whether that be time, morals, a spouse, or entrusting others. The more you sacrifice, the better you will typically do. They call that dedication, which is nonsense. It is where you draw the line in the sand, nothing more. – Broklynite Nov 29 '17 at 22:41

Is research output determined by your type of institution more than your skill?

Almost definitely. It doesn't matter how much skill you have if you do not actually use the skill. There, however, are people at R1s who do not have the needed skills to be successful researchers.

Your comments like

Consequently, people who look at Scholar B's academic record ten or twenty years after his Ph.D. confidently conclude that he is a mediocre scholar, who would never have been fit for an R1 that hires top scholars.


But Scholar B ends up being deemed "not very smart" because he produces little research.

are not universally true. I don't know many people who judge intelligence (i.e., smartness) based on research output. In my field we often have to evaluate how people who chose to work in industry will be able to fit into an R1 environment.

  • Hence, therein lies the problem; how do you identify an 'ugly duckling' from the many 'swans' who want to work at R1? In this case, the ugly duckling will always remain an ugly duckling. – Prof. Santa Claus Nov 29 '17 at 20:21
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    @Prof.SantaClaus I think that (i.e., how to evaluate the research potential of someone in industry for an R1 faculty position) would be a really good question. – StrongBad Nov 29 '17 at 20:28

It is absolutely true, and quite prevalent in all the fields. I did my masters in a institution that forces professors to teach 60% of their time and the research budget was/is extremely low. My supervisor was an MIT alumni with great knowledge in his field. His research output though was extremely low because of the institution. At the end he stopped publishing any of his works.

My point is being in such a institution demotivates even the smartest people and they become unproductive.

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    Fyi, "alumni" is plural, so you would either use the male form "alumnus" or the gender-neutral form "alum" to describe your professor. – Azor Ahai Nov 30 '17 at 0:30

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