two paths to glory

Everyone wants to know the secrets to academic success. But despite the sizable academic self-help genre, actual evidence on whether scholars who pursue certain strategies are more successful than others is fairly thin on the ground.

Erin Leahey has written about the returns to research specialization, and I know of a couple of papers on the characteristics of highly cited scientists (gated links, sorry). There’s probably more in the voluminous scientometrics literature.

Some of our standard theories in organization theory suggest different answers to this question — and in particular, to the question of what research topic you should pick. (Assuming maximum academic success is your goal and not, say, following your passion.)

A whole line of research following from Ezra Zuckerman’s 1999 article on the penalty to category breaching suggests that not fitting into predefined categories can hurt a product. Audiences, for example, find genre-spanning work less appealing. On the flip side, though, Ron Burt’s work on structural holes would seem to imply that academics who bridge poorly connected networks are in a good position to benefit from their brokerage.

Of course, none of this work (at least the stuff I know) has looked specifically at academic research. But both theories fit plausible narratives of scholarly success.

It makes a lot of sense that people who bridge disconnected research communities would be in a position to bring useful ideas from one into the other, and reap the rewards that result. On the other hand, I can think of several examples of folks who seem to achieve less success than they merit because their work falls outside, or fits awkwardly between, well-defined research communities. A penalty to category-breaching or genre-spanning sounds entirely plausible too.

If I had to guess, I’d suspect that these two patterns may both exist in academia but intersect in fairly complex ways. So the network-broker can benefit from her ability to borrow insights from another discipline, or community. But only if the insights are recognizable enough to her home discipline that others can mentally place those insights in an understandable location within their field — that is, in an existing category.

The question is whether there’s a sweet spot — being just enough of a broker to benefit, without being so radical as to trigger a category-breaching penalty. Or maybe there’s a benefit to brokerage, but only in certain structural holes — ones that don’t cause the category problem. Or maybe there are a couple of mutually exclusive strategies for success.

What do you think? Will academic brokers be hit with an illegitimacy penalty for their category breaching? Or are these in fact orthogonal issues for ambitious academics? Maybe there’s actual research that speaks to this.

(H/T to Tim Bartley for the conversation that spurred these musings.)

Written by epopp

February 9, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Posted in academia, networks

4 Responses

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  1. Brian Uzzi and colleagues’ work on “Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact” relates closely (though not exactly) to this point. They find that there’s a sweetspot of conventionality and innovation that yields the most successful (highly cited) work across academic disciplines. And on the point of structure, novel combinations are more likely to come from collaborations than from solo authors.

    link to paper (

    Liked by 1 person


    February 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm

  2. I don’t have a theoretically coherent argument to offer, but the overall problem with this kind of discussion is that there has to be differentiation. There are some niches that offer more rewards than others, but when that niche is full of competitors, some do better in other niches. The correct model has to involve some kind of match between the scholar’s traits and the various niches they might seek to fill. It cannot be one “best” strategy, because if everybody follows the “best” strategy, everybody will be doing the same thing, and that isn’t how the field works.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 9, 2015 at 6:00 pm

  3. I’d like to second Lurker’s point. Brokerage is very context dependent in academia. People prefer to dig into well established areas, rather than break out. So you need to work in a special middle zone. Probably, the most reliable way path to glory in the academy is team building plus occasional crossing over.



    February 9, 2015 at 6:06 pm

  4. Burt argues that there are three distinct benefits to brokerage positions: superior visibility; timing/being the first to know of developments in domain A that might be relevant to domain B; and building up a ‘translation skill’ over time– some of aspects of which skill, he argues, can be carried to new brokerage contexts. Each of these might have a different impact depending on the obscurity of a field to non-initiates, the velocity of its progress, and the broker’s path among different brokerage opportunities.


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