Thoughts on the ASN Young Investigator Awards (UPDATED)

Recently, I had the privilege of serving with David Pfennig (Chair) and Rebecca Safran on the ASN Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award (YIA) committee. The award goes to investigators less than 3 years post-Ph.D. for promising, outstanding research in any field covered by the ASN. The award winners have just been announced. Serving on the committee was a very rewarding experience. It also provided an interesting little window into changing research and authorship practices in evolution, ecology, and behavior. Including how things aren’t changing, even though everyone thinks they are…

First of all, congratulations to the winners: Lucy Aplin, Susan Bailey, Matthew Pennell, and Nathaniel Sharp. We had 25 applicants, all of them truly excellent, so we had some difficult decisions to make. In the end, the four winners rose to the top. It’s great that the ASN recognizes not just one but four outstanding young researchers, and rewards them with a high-profile opportunity to present their work in the YIA symposium at the next ASN meeting in Austin, TX. (UPDATE: See also this wonderful comment from the ASN’s Trish Morse on the history and purpose of the Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award.)

It was gratifying to see an applicant pool that was nearly gender balanced. This isn’t always a given for awards. Of course, it’s just one year and just one award, but it’s an encouraging anecdote.

Reading through the applications was an interesting window on how leading-edge fundamental research is done these days. Turns out some things have changed—but some things haven’t. What follows are entirely my own impressions and views; I’m not speaking for David, Rebecca, the ASN, or anyone else.

First, I was impressed, and honestly a little humbled, by just how much and how substantively these outstanding young researchers are publishing. The applicants averaged almost 13 peer-reviewed research papers, including 7 first-authored papers, and most applicants published the majority of those first-authored papers in leading journals like American Naturalist, Evolution, Nature, Animal Behaviour, etc. Indeed, I was so impressed and humbled by this that I went back to look at my own cv, because I don’t remember being this productive back when I was a grad student or postdoc! And indeed, by 2003 (3 years post-PhD), I “only” had 7 peer-reviewed research papers, well below the average for this year’s YIA applicant pool.* Which for a little while had me thinking, “Man, top young people really are publishing a lot more these days than they used to!”

But I was wrong to think that. While this year’s YIA applicants are publishing a lot, they are not publishing any more than YIA winners always have. I spot-checked the cv’s of a number of past winners, and there is no upward trend in publication rate. Winners from the early oughts, 1990s, and yes even 1980s typically had 10+ papers, mostly in leading journals, and 50%+ first-authored.

What has changed somewhat is the prevalence of co-authored papers. It used to be that YIA winners ordinarily would have at least one or two sole-authored papers, and sometimes more than that (1987 YIA winner Steven Frank had 10 papers through the end of that year, all of which were sole-authored). I was the same way—2003 me had 2 sole-authored papers among his 7. But fast forward to this year, and unless I am misremembering, only one or two of the YIA applicants had any sole-authored papers, and none had a sole-authored paper in a leading journal. Few even had any dual-authored papers (e.g., applicant + applicant’s supervisor, which also used to be fairly common). I’m unsure how much of this is changing authorship practices vs. changing scientific practices such as increasing collaboration.

I don’t think my sort of cv, with many sole-authored and dual-authored papers, is necessarily any better or worse than a cv without any. It’s just different; different people have always worked in different ways. But I do wonder a little if my sort of cv is becoming harder to build—if “shopkeeper science” is slowly becoming a thing of the past. And if so, why that is (see also).

p.s. Looking at the cv’s of outstanding researchers can be discouraging. You wonder how you could ever possibly measure up. Here’s my advice: don’t be discouraged. Nobody expects you to be the next Dolph Schluter or Sally Otto (to pick two former YIA winners), and you don’t have to be the next Dolph Schluter or Sally Otto to have a career in science, not even at a research university. See here, here and here (and many other places) for advice on pursuing a career in academic science, including advice on how to determine whether you’re competitive for the sort of job you’d like to hold.

*Aside: Just because I’m giving publication counts and referring to the journals in which papers were published does not mean that we chose award winners by just counting papers or looking at journal impact factors! As I’ve discussed in the context of faculty job applications, there are many lines of evidence that get looked at by any search or evaluation committee.

24 thoughts on “Thoughts on the ASN Young Investigator Awards (UPDATED)

  1. Another thought: I was also struck that most of the YIA applicants had been building strong cv’s since at least their undergrad days. They mostly attended elite liberal arts colleges, Ive League universities, or big research universities as undergrads, often winning scholarships and awards along the way. And most applicants went on to study under leading researchers in the field for grad school and their postdocs. And looking back at the cv’s of past YIA winners, I think this has always been true (e.g., Dolph Schluter worked with the Grants). Strong students and leading researchers seek each other out, and those students then take full advantage of being in a leading lab (they’re learning from the best, they get to interact with other strong students, the lab is well-funded…). Which then puts them in position to do postdocs with other leading researchers, etc.

    • “They mostly attended elite liberal arts colleges, Ive League universities, or big research universities as undergrads”

      It is worth keeping in mind this means many (most? all?) started from a rather privileged point.

    • If the p-word is too much, how about social capital gained from going to those schools, regardless of how one paid? (a la numerous Small Pond Science posts)

      This gives things like access to the top labs to begin with, and the networks that come with those PIs and their letters, or just access to professors who can mentor you through the grad school application process or run a workshop about applying to the GRF. As a trivial-seeming example, you can’t make Phi Beta Kappa if your university doesn’t have a chapter…seems trivial but I just had someone talk about that line on my CV for several minutes during an interview for a faculty job. Buried deep on the last page, but somehow it still caught someone’s eye.

      Of course just having these things isn’t going to make someone a YIA winner, or I should be getting a call any day now.

      • Yes, social capital is part of it, though other sorts of things are a bigger part, I think. As you say, just because you attended a good school, or joined Phi Beta Kappa, or whatever, doesn’t mean you’re someday going to be a top person in your field.

        Put another way, I don’t buy what that paper I linked to earlier calls the “pure prestige” hypothesis of academic career trajectories.

    • Yep. The folks I see around me succeeding are those who did undergrad research. Rather discouraging for those of us who come late to the game. In concert with all the above mentioned correlates (elite schools, etc.) is the fact that a large fraction of folks who have done research in undergrad have parents or other close relatives who are academics themselves. They have the advantage of learning the culture, the norms, and the unwritten rules way earlier so than those who don’t have those connections.

      • “a large fraction of folks who have done research in undergrad have parents or other close relatives who are academics themselves. ”

        I’d be curious to see data on this. I’d be surprised if a large fraction of students who’ve done research as undergrads had parents or close relatives who are academics. My folks weren’t, for instance. When I was an undergrad, I was surrounded by a lot of students doing honors projects, many of whom had been born into a lot of advantages–but “child of academics” wasn’t usually one of them. And in my dept. at Calgary, we have dozens of undergrads doing honors and independent study projects every year and working as summer research assistants, very few if any of whom are the children of academics. And I highly doubt that my dept. at Calgary is unusual in that.

      • I would love to see data, too. I guess I meant more that the folks I see succeeding around me are the children of academics in a far higher proportion than I would expect. And I also see people who did undergrad research succeeding at a much higher rate than those who didn’t. I don’t necessarily think that children of academics leads to undergrad research (but there is a logical reason why it would), rather that having at least one of these two advantages makes a lot of difference.

        PS. Glad I didn’t put in the effort to be applicant #26. I doubt I would have been competitive with my zero first-author papers…

        PPS. The three-year-post-PhD thing biases against parents (and especially bio moms). Does the ASN YIA make exceptions for people who have “extenuating” circumstances? (i.e. if someone had a child within those 3 years post-PhD, would they allow someone 4-years out to be considered?)

      • “And I also see people who did undergrad research succeeding at a much higher rate than those who didn’t. ”

        That’s presumably mostly because doing undergrad research really is good prep for doing science, in grad school and after. It starts teaching you how to come up with a question and figure out how to answer it. Gives you practice organizing all the logistics that go into running a research study. Probably obliges you to learn some stats and R programming. Etc. And maybe most importantly lets you figure out if research is something you enjoy doing! I’m sure doing undergrad research is helpful in other ways that might go under the headings of “networking” and “learning the unwritten rules of the game”. You get to know a prof who can write you a reference letter, you hang around with grad students and so get to know the unwritten norms of grad school, you maybe get to go to a conference and make a few contacts there, etc. And yeah, it’s something that prospective advisors look for in prospective grad students–but for good reason, not because it’s some arbitrary credential. I spell this out because I’m a little uncomfortable with “child of academic” and “doing undergrad research” being spoken of in the same breath (and I’m not sure if you meant to conflate them). They help a student make a career in science for quite different reasons. And only one of them is under the (partial) control of the student.

        Re: your PPS, there were people in the applicant pool who have children. At least one put a parental leave on his/her cv. I cannot speak to whether the ASN has or ever would extend eligibility based on having kids.

      • ” I’m a little uncomfortable with “child of academic” and “doing undergrad research” being spoken of in the same breath (and I’m not sure if you meant to conflate them).”

        Oh, yes, I see them as very similar. Happy to conflate them. Being a child of an academic also helps you learn to do research in a way that’s valuable, and helps you assess if that’s something you might like to do just as making similar connections in college does. I think luck (and privilege — but I see you don’t want to go there from other comments) plays very strongly into both. You can’t control your who your parents are. But as a student, you also have minimal control over whether you (1) go to a place that supports ugrad research; and (2) know that it even exists and is something you can do and how to go about connecting with the right people to make it happen.

        I don’t actually have any problem with people learning to do research earlier in their lives (either via parents or college mentors), I have a problem with systems that highly value quantity and rate-of-productivity highly for students and early career researchers. I’m happy that you report that the ASN YIA committee looked at applicants as a whole. However, did the committee take ‘time as researcher’ into account? If someone is 3-years post PhD, did a 6-year stint as a grad student, and had 2 years of ugrad research (11 years of sciencing), is it fair to compare them apples-to-apples to someone who is 1-year post-PhD who did a 5-year PhD program and had no previous research experience (6 years of sciencing)? I believe the 3-year-post-PhD limit is to try to compare applicants on equal footing, but if students gain research prior to their post-graduate schooling, then that comparison is not really fair.

      • “However, did the committee take ‘time as researcher’ into account? ”

        I don’t want to speak specifically to the committee’s deliberations. Everything I’m about to say is just me speaking for myself, and speaking generally.

        In general, I respectfully disagree with you about what puts award applicants on an equal footing. There are lots of reasons why people might spend more vs. less time as graduate students and/or postdocs, and lots of reasons why undergraduates might or might not pursue research projects. Many of which are very much under the student’s control. And many of which have nothing to do with the “opportunity” young researchers have to be productive, at least not in the way you’re assuming. For instance, to complete a PhD you need to have completed a sufficiently-substantial body of work. Rather than a short PhD indicating lack of opportunity to be productive for circumstances beyond the applicant’s control, a short PhD often can be a sign that a student was very productive. Causation runs from productivity to length of PhD in many cases, not the other way around.

        Further, you seem to be assuming a tight correlation between certain measures of productivity, and total time spent as grad student/postdoc. There is no tight correlation, at least not in the YIA applicant pool.

        None of this is to say that applicant seniority should never be considered as a factor in these sorts of awards. For instance, one might want to have a preference for candidates in their final year of eligibility, other things being equal, since more junior candidates can apply again in future. It’s just to say that matters aren’t as simple as you seem to be suggesting.

        Still speaking generally, I agree that candidates for any award should be evaluated on a level playing field. For instance, I myself have suggested in the past that applicants for NSERC Discovery Grants should have their productivity evaluated on a per-dollar-of-funding basis, because anyone will be more productive if given more funding (though optimal funding allocation from NSERC’s perspective isn’t easy: But I respectfully disagree with the ways in which you suggest leveling the playing field.

      • p.s. re: “I have a problem with systems that highly value quantity and rate-of-productivity for students and early career researchers.”, let me reiterate what I said in the post: the YIA committee (like every selection committee I’ve ever known) does not just count papers. You’re looking for an outstanding body of work–great science–whether it’s reported in few papers or many.

    • Anyone can have a look at the list of past winners and google them for themselves. Many of them are now leading researchers in their fields. I’m sure some of the recent winners are still postdocs, or are just starting up faculty positions. But they aren’t all academics–at least one is a science journalist, for instance.

  2. Hi Clara, I was going to talk a little about your question, so I’m glad I’m taking the time.

    The ASN almost from the beginning had the honorary lifetime members as the only award category–and of course was for a very long time limited to 500 members who were nominated and elected, so it was in some sense an honorary society until the 1990s.

    So this was the first of the named awards. It was before my time working with the society, but it seems to have been the result of an out-pouring of grief over Jasper Loftus-Hills’ death and the desire to do something in his honor. The thing that’s obvious from your query and others who knew him wasn’t just that he had published a lot, but that he had touched so many lives. He was clearly an example in more ways than publishing volume. As Jeremy says, there are many criteria in looking at the effect of someone’s work.

    Unfortunately, a short-hand name was used (Young Investigators Prize or YIP) and so his name and the origin of the award disappeared for awhile from the annals, so quite a few of the recipients just have the YIP on their CV.

    In trying to construct a list of past recipients for the webpage in my early days, I happened to comment to Jonathan Losos, editor-in-chief at the time, that the committee had done a remarkable job in picking good people who often went on to great careers both in terms of publishing but also service. He took pity on me and explained that the award helps good people have great careers. He also pointed out that the awards focus attention on the type of research that the ASN supports. From the importance for careers and the focus on areas of research, he pointed out to me that the awards were among the most important things that the society does.

    I’m particularly happy that so many people threw their hats in the ring and so many women applied. It’s worth the trouble!

    • OK…i was simply thinking that it might be interesting to track recipients to get some [fuzzy] idea of their post-award success [positions, pubs, research topics/grants, etc]…but as Jeremy pointed out, i could do that myself…

    • Trish, your comment makes me think of the Frost Award, given by the ESA Aquatic Ecology Section. The award was created in honor of Tom Frost, a limnologist who drowned after saving the life of his son ( The award focuses on graduate research because of his commitment to mentoring students.

      Tom died just before I started grad school, and the grief then was still palpable in the aquatic ecology community. But, as time has gone on, the meaning of the award and its name seemed like maybe it was being forgotten a bit. Several years ago, someone asked a former student of his to speak about Tom at the ESA Aquatic Ecology mixer, where the award is given out. It was beautiful. Thinking about this makes me think that maybe we should make sure to do that at least every few years at the mixer.

      • I’m thinking of the Mercer Award as well. George Mercer was a promising young ecologist who died in WW II. It’s my understanding that that’s why eligibility for the award has an age limit (as opposed to, say, a years post-PhD limit, or just being open to anyone): it’s in memory of a young ecologist.

        There’s a natural tendency–to which I’m as subject as much as anyone–to focus narrowly on what an award is for. Best paper, best poster, whatever. Rather than remembering that these awards are also for other purposes. Remembering those who came before us, encouraging others to live up to their example, and helping them do so.

  3. Another thing that I’ve had a general feeling about (but never put in the effort to really look at the data) is that people coming from Canadian labs are over-represented in the YIA (by “over-represented” I mean in comparison to the number of research labs in the general domain of ASN in the US vs in Canada). It seems a curious thing, and I wonder whether it reflects on the training of outstanding scientists, or nominating practices, or something else?

    • Yes, Canadian applicants were more common in the applicant pool this year than I expected. No idea why. But it’s a small applicant pool, so it wouldn’t take much for any idiosyncratic factor to skew the applicant pool towards candidates with particular attributes (from a certain country, working in certain fields, whatever).

      Being in Canada myself, I’d like to chalk it up to our general awesomeness. But we Canadians are far too humble for that.🙂

  4. Pingback: Linkfest: 13 February 2016 | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

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