Academic prestige: Why climb the greasy pole? Getting a job at a top university will not make you a better researcher

Academic prestige: Why climb the greasy pole? Getting a job at a top university will not make you a better researcher

May 10th 2014 | From the print edition

MOST academics would view a post at an elite university like Oxford or Harvard as the crowning achievement of a career—bringing both accolades and access to better wine cellars. But scholars covet such places for reasons beyond glory and gastronomy. They believe perching on one of the topmost branches of the academic tree will also improve the quality of their work, by bringing them together with other geniuses with whom they can collaborate and who may help spark new ideas. This sounds plausible. Unfortunately, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi of Northeastern University, in Boston (and also, it must be said, of Harvard), shows in a study published in Scientific Reports, it is not true.

Dr Barabasi and his team examined the careers of physicists who began publishing between 1950 and 1980 and continued to do so for at least 20 years. They ranked the impact of the institutions these people attended by counting the number of citations each institution’s papers received within five years of publication. By tracking the affiliations of individual physicists and counting their citations in a similar way, Dr Barabasi was able to work out whether moving from a low- to a high-ranking university improved a physicist’s impact. In total, he and his team analysed 2,725 careers.

They found that, though an average physicist moved once or twice during his career, moving from a low-rank university to an elite one did not increase his scientific impact. Going in the opposite direction, however, did have a small negative influence.

The upshot is that elite universities do not, at least as far as physicists are concerned, add value to output. That surprising conclusion is one which the authorities in countries such as Britain, who are seeking to concentrate expensive subjects such as physics in fewer, more elite institutions—partly to save money, but also to create what are seen as centres of excellence—might wish to consider.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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