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Perspective: Transitioning from Pet to Peer

At professional meetings, people compliment you on your talks. You're often picked for oral, rather than poster, presentations. You are invited to give talks at other institutions and to serve on professional committees. Your university often calls on you to be their public face: You are trotted out for interviews with the press, asked to give research seminars to alumni, and invited to meet with potential donors. It's easy to feel good about the direction your career is heading in.

Then, not long before you come up for tenure, you are told there are questions about your case and that you urgently need to strengthen your tenure dossier. What happened?

So what exactly is a pet, and how can you avoid becoming one?

Research shows that most successful academic careers have four stages; first you are an apprentice, then a colleague, then a mentor, and finally a sponsor. Apprentices learn the trade from a mentor and earn their status through the field's structured norms. Senior colleagues must come to value their judgment, to view them as serious thinkers whose contributions matter, and to consider them worthy bosses -- "acceptable as their department chair," as one of our colleagues put it.

That respect is earned by serving an apprenticeship. Scientists viewed as apprentices, who proceed to meet their institutions requirements, typically sail through the transition to colleague and peer.

But it is our observation that not every probationary faculty member is viewed as an apprentice, and hence, not every one has the same opportunity to make that transition. Some -- including some of the most outwardly promising, such as the hot young scientist described above -- come to be viewed as what we call "pets" instead of apprentices. Pets may have a harder time attaining the status of colleague within their department, and the early praise and high-profile roles they are offered can instill a false sense of security that puts them at risk of a negative tenure decision.

So what exactly is a pet, and how can you avoid becoming one?

In our experience, an early-career scientist can end up being a pet for a number of reasons, but most share this in common: They are different in some way. The difference could be gender or ethnicity, but it could also have to do with institutional pedigree or the type of research. Often, their research is interdisciplinary. Pets may have a way of expressing themselves that is unusual for their field. They may, for example, be media-savvy -- a characteristic their scientist colleagues might not respect. Pets are valued for their diversity, but not as members -- or potential members -- of the in-group.

Apprentices, in contrast to pets, are mentored to conduct research that has been "certified" as mainstream and, by the local definition, at the cutting edge. They publish with -- and often look, dress, and use the same style of discourse as -- their mentors and eminent people in the field. Indeed, they may be chosen as apprentices precisely because they fit so well the demographics, background, attitudes, values, and beliefs of their established colleagues. As perceived shared identity increases, so does mentoring.

In their early years, pets get feedback -- or appear to -- similar to what apprentices receive. Indeed, distinctiveness can be an advantage and lead to special opportunities. But when their research diverges from the local mainstream, their colleagues may regard it as peripheral, unimportant, or lacking in rigor. Meanwhile, those early signals may lead pets to believe that they are on the right track. But the same qualities that led to early recognition may be penalized at this later, critical stage. They feel betrayed when questions are raised late in the game.

Although we are not aware of research addressing this issue, there is related research from the women and science literature. Study after study has shown that early in their careers, women feel supported by their departments, don't experience stereotyping, and assume that being female will not present any real difficulties.

But, as documented in a high-profile Massachusetts Institute of Technology Report, as women progress, they become increasingly aware of gender discrimination. This increased awareness has been attributed to the fact that the junior ranks are more diverse, so judgments are inherently more fair. But it may also be because senior colleagues have so far compared these newcomers only with each other; they haven't yet started comparing them with themselves.

Although being distinctive within a junior cohort has value, problems arise when tenure committees start asking, is the candidate on track to become a researcher such as Dr. X? This older group is not diverse, and because it helped to establish the norms of the field, it knows them well and enforces them. They know that anyone they grant tenure is likely to some day be their department chair. To ensure they're likely to agree with your future judgments, they need your criteria to match theirs. The diversity that was so attractive when you were younger becomes uncomfortable.

What to look for, and what to do about it

From our description, it should be clear that becoming a pet is undesirable. Are you heading down that path? How can you know? Early in their probationary period, pets get lots of reassurance, but if you pay close attention, you can sense potential trouble.

- People seem to value your presence more than your actual contributions.

- People express surprise at your high performance in a mainstream activity or subtly attribute your success to your difference.

- You get nice feedback but don't get much helpful advice; for example, you are complimented on how well you spoke during your presentation, but no one tells you how to improve it.

- You are called by your first name and introduced informally in situations where your peers are referred to as Dr. X and Professor Y and given carefully prepared introductions.

- You feel different from your colleagues and sense they also consider you different in some way.

- Because of your difference, no one in your department feels they can mentor you effectively.

If you suspect you may be becoming -- or have already become -- a pet, the most important thing is not to be seduced by the early attention you receive, and to focus on meeting the most rigorous tenure standards.

- Build a tenure dossier your senior colleagues and the distinguished scientists in your field would consider strong. Publish in the highest-impact journals and, even if your work is interdisciplinary, get some publications published in mainstream journals known and valued by your department.

- In presentations, articles, proposals, research statements, and discussions, make sure that you articulate why your research matters. Describe it in ways that make it difficult for others to dismiss it as fringe, niche, optional, or lacking in rigor.

- Accept only invitations that advance your scientific reputation; avoid those that could be labeled as "service."

- When you give presentations, include references to mainstream work so that you don't isolate yourself or your scholarship. Provide session chairs with a brief biography so that it is easy for them to state your credentials when they introduce you.

- Present your research at the annual meetings of your professional society, not just at interdisciplinary and specialty venues. Propose special sessions where you and your research can be seen as leading the mainstream. Invite prominent researchers to present in your session. This can help to shape people's perceptions of the field you play in.

- Be proactive about getting to know, and then seeking research advice and mentoring from, people who are leaders in your field. Including eminent scholars as co-authors on presentations, publications, and proposals may be helpful. But do this selectively. Some will assume that primary credit for a piece of work belongs with the most established co-author.

The consequences of being viewed as different due to your gender, race, research, or institutional pedigree are complex and difficult to overcome. The key is to recognize what's happening and to not let the early, positive attention distract you from building an impervious record of scholarship.


This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) under Cooperative Agreement SBE-0245014, ADVANCE at the Columbia University Earth Institute. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF.

References and Related Reading

A. H. Eagly and S. J. Karau, "Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders." Psychological Review 109, 573 (2002).

L. T. Eby et al., "The Protege's Perspective Regarding Negative Mentoring Experiences: The Development of a Taxonomy." Journal of Vocational Behavior 57, 1 (2000) available online.

G. W. Dalton et al. "The four stages of professional careers: A new look at performance by professionals." Organizational Dynamics 6, 19 (1977).

D. C. Feldman, "Toxic Mentors or Toxic Proteges? A Critical Re-Examination of Dysfunctional Mentoring." Human Resource Management Review 9, 247 (1999).

M. E. Heilman, "The impact of situational factors on personnel decisions concerning women: Varying the sex composition of the applicant pool." Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 26, 386 (1980).

M. E. Heilman, "Description and prescription: How Gender Stereotypes Prevent Women's Ascent Up the Organizational Ladder." Journal of Social Issues 57 , 657 (2001).

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Report, "A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT." The MIT Faculty Newsletter XI, 4 (1999).

P. R. Sackett et al., "Tokenism in performance evaluation: The effects of work group representation on male-female and White-Black differences in performance ratings." Journal of Applied Psychology 76, 263 (1991).

D. B. Turban et al., "Role of Protégé Personality in Receipt of Mentoring and Career Success." Academy of Management Journal 37, 688 (1994).

Photo (top): A. Kotok

Text corrected, 2 February 2010.