New research shows that the size of a faculty member’s network predicts productivity, promotion, and probability of winning an NIH R01 grant.
Guest contributor Viviane Callier
Connections matter – in terms of productivity, in terms of obtaining grants, in terms of promotion and advancement, and in terms of retention in academic positions, a new Harvard-based study shows. Women and underrepresented minorities (URMs) have a smaller “reach” – a measure of second-order connections – and the discrepancy between the reach of women & URMs and that of white men is greatest at the junior faculty level. This discrepancy may account for differences in productivity, promotion, and retention of women and URMs in academia.
To investigate the importance of connections, Joan Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership at the Harvard Medical School, looked at more than 5000 faculty members’ co-authors within the Harvard Medical School community, and then the coauthors of those coauthors. The number of second degree connections, or “reach,” was used as a measure of connectivity.
At the full and associate professor levels, Reede found no difference in reach between women and men of Harvard faculty. But the difference was very pronounced at the assistant professor level and at the instructor level: reach was lower for women than men, and lower for URMs compared to whites. “So there is something happening within our institution when we look at junior faculty and how they are connected to others,” said Reede.
The researchers looked at what happened over time, from 2008 to 2012, to see if there was an effect of connectivity on promotion and retention. Faculty who were in the highest quartile of reach were three times more likely to be promoted from instructor to senior professor than those in the lowest quartile, even when controlling for factors like academic discipline, number of publications, and so on. Faculty in the highest reach quartile were also 17 percent less likely to leave the institution than those in the lowest quartile.
Faculty members in the highest quartile of reach were also twice as likely to have received an R01, the NIH’s bread and butter grant for independent investigators, compared to those in the lowest quartile – even after adjusting for variables like discipline and numbers of publications, H-index, and so on. When the researchers looked at the women who were successful in winning an R01 grant verses those who were not successful, they found that what makes the biggest difference is being a co-investigator on another, externally funded, grant. “What does it mean to be a co-investigator? It means you’re collaborating,” said Reede. “It means you have connections. It means you might publish more. You might be included in additional grants.”
Going forward, the researchers will investigate the role of connections, how they are formed, and the types of connections that matter, like mentorship or sponsorship. “We need to understand the institutional role in fostering or hindering connections,” Reede said. “And we need to understand how to build them, and how to sustain them over time.”
Viviane Callier is a freelance science writer in Washington, DC. She has a PhD in biology from Duke University. You can follow her on Twitter here.