2. The curse of the letter of recommendation

I’ve started this post multiple times. And I stop. Today, in the midst of letter writing season, I asked myself why don’t I finish this?

Because it is a topic that women and minorities want to avoid. We don’t want to be perceived as complainers, we expect that “others” think and understand our reality, talk about our issues, and solve the issues…but if we don’t share, our stories and perspectives don’t come out, so here it goes:

Yes, I think it is harder for many women and minorities to be perceived as “successful” in science, and it’s even harder if you are both. But notice the "perceived" in the sentence before. What is perceived as scientific “success” these days? Publications in “top tier” scientific journals, giving many plenary talks in reputable conferences, and winning awards, probably a collection of them, that are supposed to pile up starting when you are a budding scientist.

I did not believe that women and minorities were in professional disadvantage. I argued that good and hard work was all what was needed to succeed in science, and that the differences in the numbers of success stories that people like to report were a consequence of just a pathetically smaller pool. I would still argue that that is true, except that my definition of success is different than that above. Mine involves having a solid core of trainees and research projects that grow and have a significant impact in the field and in society. I know that that is a naive definition, because how are you going to have an impact if you don’t publish in top tear journals? or have a platform to share your work? or win awards that put your name out there for everyone to pay attention to your work?

Ok, here is where the problem really is: “put your name out there for everyone to pay attention”. This is what I think is a major limitation for many women, other minorities, and many white males too. Success in science depends to a large degree on how well connected we are. Although the street vision of a scientist is that of a very smart, but somehow socially impaired person (or a nerd), this is far from reality. Science is a social discipline. Have you heard “mingle, network, talk o people, network, mingle…and network” many times in your career? The reality is that a very significant component of what we know as “success” in science depends on social interactions. And here is what makes it so hard. If you are an introvert, don’t like -or can’t- socialize, are different -or an “outsider”- the mountain to climb to be recognized as someone with something to say in your field is steeper, even if you have contributed significantly (and quantifiably). The social interactions in science are evident in social media. Who is “friends” with who is open for everyone to see, and is not uncommon to find statements such as “Jane Doe is my preferred scientist in my University…”, or the “the fantastic speaker Jane Doe…” The impact of these personal connections is tractable. Just look at published conference programs, for example. You’ll frequently find those “friends” as combinations of organizers and speakers. Check the editorial boards of journals where highly successful trainees have published. You’ll likely find their current or past mentors as members of the scientific board. Look into newly awarded prestigious prices. You repeatedly find previous awardees as members of their departments or direct previous mentors.

Well, you've nailed it. You understand that being more social and meeting people are important factors of success. Then, lets invest time and resources early in your career in going to meetings, mingling, meeting more and more people…it is fun and necessary...But wait, many years later, many new “friends”, and some real good science, and you are still not invited to give plenary session talks in reputable meetings, you haven’t won prestigious awards, or haven't been labeled a “raising star” (another of those terms that make me cringe). In fact, the clearest consequence of all those mingling efforts is a large number of extra service work, including organizing conferences, participating in study sections, becoming elected members of society committees, becoming member editorial boards etc. etc. …It’s more complicated than having a thriving scientific program and meeting people to be ”successful”, isn’t it?

Ok, so, you have a great stream of good science publications, you haven’t pissed off people, in fact you have many “friends” in the field, and people still don't pay attention to your science. What’s the problem then? The problem is that on top of knowing lots of people, to be perceived as successful today you need to know the “right” people. Better said, you need to have a scientific pedigree or be very well attached to someone that has a solid one. This is what is all wrong and needs to change if the efforts to increase diversity (both racial and scientific) in science are sincere.

Scientific pedigree. Something that you can’t make up for. Something that is extremely old fashion based on times when verbal recommendations were all what was available. Something that, in proportion, women and minorities have a harder time accessing to, and there are plenty of evidence on this last one here, so I won’t dwell on this.

I wouldn’t be writing if I wouldn’t think that there is a solution. And the solution that I propose is relatively simple, stop worshiping awards and opportunities that are based on connections, and stop making those opportunities based on personal connections! The first one is hard, right? Good press is something that will always be welcomed, for good or bad. The second one is not: do not based final decisions on letters of recommendations which make the decision process largely based on the quality of "connections". Find metrics that you consider are at the core of your values as a foundation/institution, make them public, and build a selection process based on that. Why are letters of recommendations still even required? It makes no sense. We all have access to everyone's scientific record all the time. If you feel you need to know more about a person, read their papers, go to their talks, reach out to their chairs, direct supervisors, collaborators, etc. talk to them and form your own opinion.

So going back, yes, in today’s system it is harder to be successful for some, specially when awards and press is what you are looking for, as those are largely based on connections. But this can change, and the change should start from those institutions defining "success".


October 21st, 2017