Early-Career Setback and Future Career Impact

62 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2019

See all articles by Yang Wang

Yang Wang

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO)

Benjamin F. Jones

Northwestern University; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Dashun Wang

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO)

Date Written: March 16, 2019

Abstract

Setbacks are an integral part of a scientific career, yet little is known about whether an early-career setback may augment or hamper an individual’s future career impact. Here we examine junior scientists applying for U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 grants. By focusing on grant proposals that fell just below and just above the funding threshold, we compare “near-miss” with “near-win” individuals to examine longer-term career outcomes. Our analyses reveal that an early- career near miss has powerful, opposing effects. On one hand, it significantly increases attrition, with one near miss predicting more than a 10% chance of disappearing permanently from the NIH system. Yet, despite an early setback, individuals with near misses systematically outperformed those with near wins in the longer run, as their publications in the next ten years garnered substantially higher impact. We further find that this performance advantage seems to go beyond a screening mechanism, whereby a more selected fraction of near-miss applicants remained than the near winners, suggesting that early-career setback appears to cause a performance improvement among those who persevere. Overall, the findings are consistent with the concept that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Whereas science is often viewed as a setting where early success begets future success, our findings unveil an intimate yet previously unknown relationship where early-career setback can become a marker for future achievement, which may have broad implications for identifying, training and nurturing junior scientists whose career will have lasting impact.

Keywords: Science of science, scientific careers, causal inference, science funding, failure

Suggested Citation

Wang, Yang and Jones, Benjamin F. and Wang, Dashun, Early-Career Setback and Future Career Impact (March 16, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3353841 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3353841

Yang Wang

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO) ( email )

Chambers Hall
600 Foster Street
Evanston, IL 60208-4057
United States

Benjamin F. Jones

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States
847-491-3177 (Phone)
847-467-1777 (Fax)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Dashun Wang (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Northwestern Institute for Complex Systems (NICO) ( email )

Chambers Hall
600 Foster Street
Evanston, IL 60208-4057
United States

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