Mentorship Style and Scientific Productivity

August 3, 2011

Reading Patrice Debré ‘s excellent biography of Louis Pasteur, one thing becomes clear very quickly: Pasteur was an autocrat in the lab. In fact, his associates seemed to have asked whether he could ever truly collaborate with anyone.

Work hours in Pasteur’s lab were regulated, leisure time was viewed with suspicion. Experiments were undertaken only after solitary deliberations by the master himself (p.160, my loose translation).

Which leads to the following question: what is the relationship between mentorship style and scientific productivity? My prior is that there isn’t any. Apprentices just sort themselves on the basis of their compatibility with their advisers’ temperaments, such that, in equilibrium, and controlling for unobserved heterogeneity, autocratic PIs, democratic PIs, and “hands off” PIs (to adopt a crude and not necessarily exhaustive taxonomy) achieve the same level of average productivity.

But while this is fine as null hypothesis, there are of course complications. For example, do labor market processes really make it possible for  trainees to match with mentors in this way? How do trainees balance scientific interests, status, and temperament in the sorting process? And even if sorting is efficient on all dimensions, are certain styles more conducive to the production of scientific breakthroughs (vs. the slow accretion of “normal” scientific results in the Kuhnian sense)? Finally, Are there gender differences in the extent of mismatch, and does this have consequences for the underrepresentation of women in some scientific fields?

I think there is a research agenda here. Maybe this has been explored already, but I somehow that such studies are serious in the sense of taking sorting processes seriously. Am I wrong? I certainly hope so.