Saturday, May 18, 2013

Scientists gossip too! (With a shout out to @ChemBark)

In any given academic discipline, there simply aren't that many people in research active departments. In part, this is because there just aren't that many primarily graduate institutions (PGIs) as classified by the Carnegie Institution.  In chemistry, there are well over 100 such departments, with USNews and World Report ranking the top 140. The NSF also keeps track of chemistry departments according to research expenditures using federal research dollars. Not surprisingly, departments with larger expenditures tend to be larger. (At the very least, they need more people to use the money.) In the top 50 of these departments, there are approximately 1600 professors. That number is smaller than the number of students in the high school I attended as a teenager. It's also small enough that it gives rise to all sorts of overlapping social networks, and intrigue....

That's right. Intrigue. The questions include: Who got their first job and where. Who got tenure, and sadly who didn't. Who's moving where. How much money was so and so offered to go where, and why they did or did not take the offer. Who got which prize or honor. Put two chemistry professors in a room who've never met before. First they'll tire themselves out discussing their latest research results and how they might help the other one advance their research projects. Then, they will catch their second wind discussing other chemists that they know in common. Of course, social media has a role to play here too. A very good blog, ChemBark, tracks, among many things, the latest academic hires and poaches in chemistry. It's kept current through blog replies providing information that is used to update the main post. (In a sense the page is a moderated wiki.) As it's impossible to hide who is visiting a given department and when, this crowdsourced updating works remarkably well. That is true as long as the readers of ChemBark span all of chemistry. That's not quite the case as I noticed that several theory hires were missing!! Which isn't necessarily ChemBark's fault; it's just an indication of the breadth of chemistry spanned by his reply-writing readership or my overly sensitive perspective about my own subfield of chemistry. 

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