Every field has its Feynmans, Goodalls, Tysons, and Skinners. But what if your own work isn’t so brilliant? "Well, work hard!" the great Prof. Pomposity might reply. But everyone works hard! So, is there anything the ordinary academic can do to climb to the top of the heap? The following cynical guide contains 13 tips for the early career academic who aspires to superstardom without necessarily having to do anything exceptional in the field. In my 30+ years in psychology, I have seen all of these in action. Sometimes the new star had a career built on a single amazing paper or two; other times the star really had done nothing more than a few dodgy studies (to my eyes, at least). None of these tips should be considered necessary or sufficient conditions to reach the stratosphere, but the more of these you have, the more likely it is that you will be the next academic superstar.
1. Early on (maybe while still in graduate school), find a collaborator with whom you agree to give each other co-authorship on nearly all of your papers, no matter what the actual contribution to the paper is. Be sure to set an expiration date on this contract—perhaps five or ten years from now.
2. Form a professional cabal among a group of other aspiring superstars in your field. In the truest sense of this word, make sure the cabal is a secret. Then agree to give each other favourable manuscript and grant proposal reviews, without disclosing the existence of your cabal to anyone else *.
3. Hide your humility and ignorance. Pretend you read that paper, thought about that criticism, were aware of that weakness, and, frankly, are just bored with the fuss.
4. Get your Ph.D. at a famous university. It doesn’t really matter whether your department at this university is among the best in your field.
5. Choose a Ph.D. advisor who is well connected and willing to make introductions for you at conferences and other social events. Having an advisor who is an academic star gets you extra points!
6. Get yourself invited to small conferences that are invitation-only or not well advertised, especially those held at castles, former monasteries, and beachside resorts. Academics like exclusivity and respect others who “got in”.
7. When you write papers, offer gift authorships to current academic stars. Having someone famous as a co-author, even if they don’t get a chance to read the manuscript, will impress editors, reviewers, and grant agencies. Surprisingly, many academic stars have no qualms about accepting such gifts.
8. Write an essay or editorial that is controversial. Don’t worry if you don’t have the evidence (yet) to back up your arguments.
9. Hang out with people with lots of grant money. Money attracts money, and many academics like to hoard it. Some of that money just might fall on top of you if you’re standing nearby. And then that money will attract more money.
10. Engage in Questionable Research Practices. Go ahead and p-hack, HARK, and run as many underpowered studies as you can. You're sure to find a fascinating false positive eventually! If someone calls you out on these practices, claim that “this is what people in my area always do” or “I wish we had known about the better practices when I started this research.”
11. Rename an old problem with a new term. Organise a conference around it (and make it exclusive—see #6). Edit a book or a special journal issue containing papers from the conference. Never acknowledge people were doing this same work decades ago.
12. Protect your research time at all costs. Teaching weighs down the rising star. Hopefully, the only undergraduates you will ever know are the ones working in your lab group...probably for free.
13. Be terribly selective about any potential departmental or professional society commitments. Only choose to participate in those that garner the most power and/or perks.
A final note: When you finally reach the top, don't forget that it's your responsibility to defend the hierarchy from would-be foes. Remember to close the door behind you as enter the land of exclusivity. Be scathing in your reviews of others' manuscripts and proposals. Hoard your research money and remember that you can never have enough of it. You don't really need those people standing outside the club anymore. You're in the upper echelons of the academy now, baby!
*A friend of mine was invited to join such a cabal in the ‘90s, made up exclusively of people under the age of 35. The aim was to give each other positive reviews on manuscripts and grant proposals, as well as share drafts among members. Interestingly, when the founders of that group turned 35, the age rule was dropped. The organisers are now superstars. I am not sure about the group’s current status—I can’t find anything about it online!