Waltz to excellence

BRUSSELS—How do scientists find their way to excellence? That’s a question the European Research Council (ERC) is asking itself in a study of applicants—successful and unsuccessful—for its Starting Grants and Advanced Grants programs. Claartje Vinkenburg, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Amsterdam Center for Career Research at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands, presented some preliminary results from the study at the Gender Summit here in June.

Not long ago, the typical successful scientist would have been male, with a family, a wife at home, and a permanent position soon after the Ph.D. While this stereotype doesn’t reflect how scientists live and work today, it still shapes expectations about what a successful career should look like, and that could impact career-relevant decisions such as the awarding of prestigious research grants.

It’s important to realize that excellence is in every pattern. There’s not one way.

With a view toward removing that normative bias, ERC has pledged to take career breaks and “unconventional research career paths” into account when selecting recipients of its generous research grants, including the Starting Grants, which offer up to €2 million for 5 years to rising principal investigators (PIs), and the Advanced Grants, which provide established research leaders with up to €3.5 million. But, how could ERC know if they were succeeding, if they didn’t know what those unconventional career paths look like?

So, ERC commissioned a study of its applicants’ career structures, with a particular focus on how gender affects their professional paths. The project, called “Capturing gendered career paths of ERC grantees and applicants” (ERCAREER), attempts to “map the road to excellence,” says Vinkenburg, the project’s PI. After carrying out an online survey, Vinkenburg and her team crunched career data for more than 1000 ERC applicants (737 from Advanced Grants competitions and 332 from Starting Grants competitions). They used a technique called optimal matching, which was developed to analyze DNA sequences and later introduced to social sciences research. Instead of DNA sequences, the team dissected the sequence of jobs held by ERC applicants—those who won grants and those who didn’t—after they completed their Ph.D.s.

ERCAREER identified five career patterns for each of the two sample groups and used dance metaphors to label each of them. For Starting Grants applicants, the typical, steadily progressing university career is described as a “Viennese Waltz,” while those with repeated postdocs are placed in the “Slow Waltz” category. “Quickstep” represents rapid promotions in university careers, while “Foxtrot” describes steady progress within research institutes. “Tango,” in contrast, refers to “complicated moves” within and outside academia, including transitions in and out of employment.

Advanced Grants applicants share three of these patterns: Tango, Foxtrot, and Viennese Waltz. Researchers also identified two other dances for these more experienced scientists: the “Jive” (steady progress in state-funded research institutes) and the “Waltz,” which describes researchers who have reached the “saturation” level in their university careers with not much time left for another move.

When focusing on Starting Grants applicants, Vinkenburg and her team found, unsurprisingly, that the two patterns most commonly perceived as impressive in career terms—Quickstep and Foxtrot—were indeed the most successful in winning a grant. While the overall success rate for Starting Grant applicants (in the sample studied) was 18%, success rates for Quickstep and Foxtrot candidates were around 24%. But the good news, and the study’s main finding, is that ERC has been detecting and rewarding excellence in each of the career choreographies. For example, the less conventional Tango patterns showed success rates of around 13%—significantly lower than for Quickstep and Foxtrot but higher than might have been expected if grantees were selected strictly according to old-fashioned norms. “This means you can be excellent while making complicated career moves across various settings or while in postdoc position number five” (for Slow Waltz dancers), Vinkenburg explains.

One take-home message from the study is that it can be helpful to understand career conventions, which differ across disciplines and countries, even if you strictly don’t follow them. That means knowing what career moves are considered successful in your field: spending a research stint abroad, going back to your Ph.D. institution, or moving from a university to a private research body, perhaps. With this knowledge, “you can then consciously choose to be less conventional or even unconventional if it fits your life [or] preference, rather than finding out later on that you missed a crucial junction because of ignorance or naivety,” Vinkenburg advises.

But perhaps above all, “it’s important to realize that excellence is in every pattern. There’s not one way,” Vinkenburg says. “Our data clearly shows career patterns vary, and what is generally considered conventional or typical may actually not be much more common than other less conventional paths.” Early-career scientists should not shy away from applying for prestigious grants just because they think they have an atypical career path. “You can have an excellent [research] idea while taking care of seven kids or [looking after] a sick parent, or being in the lab 24 hours a day,” she tells Science Careers. “It [shouldn’t] matter how you got there.”

More detailed findings, including results on gender and dual-career couples, will be released in the coming months.

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