Publishing in elite journals no guarantee of tenure

Research by a team of US neuroscientists is intended to debunk widely believed myths that prestigious grants or publication in top-flight journals were necessary to obtain a tenure-track position. These myths could drive trainees to pursue large or complex time-intensive research projects, the paper’s authors said, and could unnecessarily prolong time in training.

‘Myths and facts about getting an academic faculty position in neuroscience’ published in Science Advances in August, the paper by senior National Institutes of Health neuroscientists included data from 344 faculty with research doctorates who were hired into assistant professor or equivalent positions between 2009 and today. The paper’s authors also interviewed senior hiring academics from six different types of US institution.

The research found fewer than 11% per cent of the cohort of newly hired faculty had been granted a prestigious National Institutes of Health K900-R00 award. They found that neither this type of funding nor publication in one of most highly regarded suite of CSN neuroscience journals (Cell, Science or Nature) were essential for a tenured position. About 40% had published in one of these journals.

“We see trainees spending a lot of time trying to get into one of those elite journals when it’s just not necessary,” said lead author, Stephen Korn, who wrote the paper with his colleagues Nina Hsu, K. Paul Rezaizadeh and Michael Tennekoon.

“This is often driven by the mentor, although occasionally by the trainee, and in both cases, often based on faulty beliefs about the importance of these high-profile papers.”

Trainees were sometimes simply used as “data-generators” by their mentors, Korn added, rather than assisted with their careers. “Great mentors help their trainees figure out where they want to go and how to get there. Others are just out for themselves and using the trainees as labour. Most fall somewhere in between.”

Rather than pursuing publication in high-profile journals, trainees should try to do creative research to impress hiring academics, Korn said. “Just following along a path doing incremental work can be really important, but it’s not particularly interesting, inventive or novel. People want to see vision for making a difference. And, of course you need to do high-quality work.“

A high-profile grant or research paper might attract the notice of senior academics, he added, but candidates should also have a record of original work.

“Getting a grant or having a high-profile paper definitely helps you,” he said. “The issue is that it’s not necessary. The best way to move forward is to be a good scientist and to be able to communicate.”

The six senior hiring academics interviewed by the paper’s authors “were fundamentally looking for thoughtful, highly creative, and well-trained individuals who are in pursuit of novel discoveries, fit well into their departments, and are suited to personal interactions with people that have different perspective and experiences”, the paper found.

They all highly valued individuals who drove their own research, had a vision of where their work would go and understood where and why the work would be important.

Co-author and fellow National Institutes of Health neuroscientist, Rezaizadeh, said the academics said it was important to understand they “weren’t just hiring a metric”.

“It is a qualitative assessment,” he said. “Having certain metrics might open someone’s eyes and they will take a look at you a little closely, but there are many reasons why people get published in some of these journals.”

It was more important for applicants to demonstrate they were innovators, leaders, creative thinkers, team workers and collaborators, he said. “Trainees sometimes think you don’t have to work at those things, don’t have to work at communicating your science,” he said. “They think if they get grants, that does the heavy lifting, and everything falls into position after that.

”The paper might have a certain amount of international relevance, Rezaidadeh said. “I think people would be looking for the same traits in the individuals they’re hiring into research and lecturer positions.”