One of my colleagues came by the other day to dispute a remark I made in a comment here the other day. The question is the role of "pedigree" in hiring into pharmaceutical research labs, which varies quite a bit between companies. Some are notorious for "old boy" systems - you'll find an awful lot of Corey folks at Pfizer, for example. Does this consideration make sense, and if it does, how much should it count for?
It was pointed out to me that I've consistently claimed that there's no one best model for drug discovery, and that flexibility is a virtue. Thus, went the argument, I shouldn't rule out hiring by pedigree, because there's surely no one best way to select chemists, either. I agree with that last part, but my comment against pedigree was aimed more at people who rule out hiring by any other means. I was actually making a pro-flexibility case.
But that doesn't settle the underlying issue: is hiring based on who the job candidate worked for a good idea, or not? First off, I should note that this is mainly an issue for PhD lab-head jobs. Associate positions get filled by people from all over the place, since the job requirements aren't as broad. With that in mind, I think this can be broken down into categories: the candidate could have worked for
1. Someone with a poor reputation
2. Someone that no one's ever heard of
3. Someone with no particular reputation either way
4. Someone with a reasonably solid reputation, but not a star
5. Someone who's famous
You'd probably stay away from (1), but I frankly can't think of anyone I'd put in that category. A lot of professors in group (2) might be classified that way if anyone paid attention to them, I guess, so that group is at a disadvantage, too.
But they're at a disadvantage for many other good reasons. The main way to stay in that second group is to not publish much, not give talks at meetings, and work at a school that's not known for chemistry. Clearly, you don't want to come out of a research group in this category if you can help it.
Category (3) is a step up, but not by much. Professors in this group are not totally unrecognizable, but they're not known for anything specific. You recall hearing their name, or seeing them in a journal, but you didn't read the paper. Closer inspection might reveal that to be either their fault or yours - it could go either way. The reason you don't have a handle on the person might just be that no ones finds their work interesting or useful.
Category (4) is where the arguing really gets going. There are an awful lot of research groups in this category, and the quality of the people they turn out varies widely. My colleague argues that picking from category (5) instead gives you a bozo filter, that you're at least assured of some level of quality control.
My reply was that if someone is a bozo, you should be able to pick up on that during the interview process. Personally, if I had to hire a hundred people from only one category to staff a med-chem department, and boy am I glad that I don't, I'd go with (4) over (5) as long as I got to select from the pool. If I had to hire blind, though, category (5) people might well give a higher average.
But it could come at a cost. Just as there are all sorts of people working for not-so-famous professors, there are all sorts of famous professors. You've got your up-and-coming stars, your over-the-hills, your genuine geniuses and your sweatshot slave-drivers. Some of these folks damage as many students as they improve. (And there's another downside to hiring only from the elite: some of them come complete with bonus attitude).