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.)