What’s a pedigree good for?

An acquaintance of mine just got the pink sheets (summary statement) on her first R01. It was not discussed, but the scores were decent (several 1s and 2s, a few 3s, a couple of 4s). The major problem was her publication rate, which she herself wouldn’t argue against. Other than that, the reviewers didn’t really have major problems with the grant. The preliminary data was good and the plan was solid. So it’s not really clear what she should fix, except try to publish a couple more papers before resubmitting. The overwhelming feeling she came away with is the reviewers just didn’t “like” her. She can wait a couple of rounds before resubmitting and get a couple more papers out, but will that make her more “likable”? Or is this a lost cause?

This situation seems to be a hidden issue in the funding field; that is, the lack of a pedigree can put you pretty low on the priority list for shallow NIH coffers. Said applicant has trained as a physician-scientist in a well-regarded lab, although outside of her chosen field, has a few solid publications that she’s squeezed out between clinical service, and has developed good collaborations from funded, tenured profs in her field. But she hasn’t trained in a big-name lab from her own field, and she doesn’t have big-name collaborations or GM (glamor mag) papers. And she now fears that these factors may be the death of her young, burgeoning research program.

So what is a pedigree good for? Well, to begin with, let’s remember that the desire for a pedigree is not necessarily an unfair standard. A strong pedigree usually indicates that you’ve trained under world-class scientist(s), interacted with some of the most brilliant young minds, and had your hands on the newest, hottest techniques and developments in your field. In fact, I’d argue that a pedigree is much more than a record of where you’ve been…a strong pedigree has the potential to provide knowledge, exposure, and experience that others in not-as-big-name labs might not have. That being said, a good pedigree does not guarantee a good scientist; only time will tell if a good pedigree will have the intended positive impact on any individual.

So the moral of the story? Well, I wouldn’t say that grad students thinking about postdocs should only consider the name on the letterhead. In fact, you should take into account a whole host of factors, including the prof’s philosophy on work and life, how happy his lab minions are, and where past postdocs in that lab have ended up. If you’re interested in an academic career, however, I would argue that pedigree is just as important as these other factors. You don’t have to shoot for the biggest name out there, but a well-respected, tenured faculty member in your desired field can really give your career legs.

Bottom line: a good pedigree opens doors. What you do when you go through those doors is up to you.


6 thoughts on “What’s a pedigree good for?

  1. I really enjoyed this post.
    Personally I am sick and tired of picking up [a particular ASM journal] and seeing the crap they let through. I see papers with mistakes, with data interpreted incorrectly, and no controls. I don't understand why reviewers are not catching it and it has to be because the reviewers let it through so that when they submit their own paper, theirs will go through.
    But now I understand the pressure involved. Maybe some of those lame papers are rushed to get them done in time for a grant deadline.

    It makes sense to me now if that is the reason.

  2. My choice of who to post-doc with was determined first by location (unfortunately). The PI I ultimately chose is very well-known although the university isn't a Harvard-type. The fact that he is well-known did factor into my decision making, but what ultimately made my decision was that he had post-docs that had obtained funding and transitioned to tenure-track faculty positions. I figured this guy could give me the guidance I needed to make it to the next step.

  3. Look, I'm not saying it is impossible that pedigree was the difference…but I think your friend is barking up the wrong tree. And it is going to hurt the ability to properly revise is one is fixated on this being the “cause”. A “few 3s and a couple of 4s” is sufficient to spell triage in my view. Those should be taken seriously.

    Assuming this was a first-submission then the old revision bias still comes into play as well. Your friend needs to work the process before deciding the deck is stacked against his/her pedigree.

    Your “moral”, well, pedigree doesn't always get you everything. And pedigree type labs can be an absolute disaster for some subset of the trainees.

  4. JE: I'm sure quality of papers is taken into consideration, but mainly with respect to the impact of the journal. Other than a reviewer being very familiar with the specific field or applicant's work, I doubt they are able to really judge the quality of each individual paper. That being said, I'm sure importance of quality versus quantity of papers varies quite a bit from one reviewer to another.

    DM: Thanks for the comment. I wrote this post in a rush last week, and I don't think I clarified my point regarding the “moral” of the story very well. I, too, know postdocs that have withered away in pedigreed labs. But I also know of many that have gone nowhere because they chose to work for an unknown. I don't think pedigree is the most important factor in choosing a postdoc, I just think it's something to take into consideration. I myself didn't pick the most highly sought-after labs in the country, but I do think I have benefited greatly from two mentors who have solid experience, funding, and connections in the field. (This point was explicitly stated by each reviewer in my own summary statement.) Non-pedigreed mentors can certainly provide these same benefits, as well as other qualities that a big-name sometimes just can't; you just may have to work a bit harder to network yourself from a less-known lab.

    Regarding my friend, there was no surprise about the scores leading to triage, and I agree completely about working the process before making a decision. My friend actually brought up the point of pedigree as a positive factor – that training in a well-known lab may have afforded others a genuine leg up in the quality of their research, not just in how they were viewed on the surface by a reviewer…which in turn got me thinking about the pros and cons of a good pedigree. My friend's frustration mainly is concerned with knowing the proposal was solid, and having a very limited amount of time to fix what might not be fixable…it's just not clear at this point.

  5. Pingback: Repost – What’s a pedigree good for? « The Tightrope

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