There are gatekeepers to every step in an academic career. It is wise to think about who they are and what they are looking for as you progress. Gatekeepers restrict your choices on which lab group to join, where to go to graduate school, where to publish, and where your funding will come from. They will follow you throughout your career, deciding whether or not you get special kinds of recognition.
You would be wise to think about your gatekeepers. Your gatekeepers will not share all of your background. They will not understand you if you do not write or present clearly and sequentially, giving enough background to make your work fit clearly in context. They will want to see creative, hard, and careful work and may well penalize you for self-aggrandizement, or signs of a lack of collegiality. They will not all be the same. Some will judge you unfairly by where you went to college, for example. Others will not.
Sometimes you will know who your gatekeepers are because they are on admissions committees, or are National Science Foundation officers, or editors of journals. Most of the gatekeepers you will not know. They are the anonymous referees of proposals and papers, or the committees choosing prizes you didn’t even know you might receive.
Understanding the gatekeepers in some ways is like understanding the history of science. Look at their careers, at what motivated them, and at what hurdles they describe. Find personal pieces written by leaders in your field. If there is a history of your field, or of one close to yours, read it. There are great histories of ethology, by Gordon Burkhardt and of Drosophila genetics, by Robert Kohler, for example.
I am thinking about gatekeepers partly because I realized that I never much thought about them when I was younger, but most immediately because a friend of mine, Rick Wilson, said in a Rice University
publication recently that he wanted to be a gatekeeper, even from an early age. He sees this as an important way of shaping his discipline of political science. I have been a gatekeeper for some things so secret I can’t tell you about them. I take the time to do this to encourage innovation and success from a diverse community.He has succeeded at this by doing stints as an NSF program officer, and as editor of one of the major journals in his field.
The thing about gatekeepers is that they have to exist for two basic reasons. The first is that there are not enough spots for everyone in a given laboratory, or in the pages of a journal. The second is that there are standards of quality that we want to have maintained. Studies should be honest and careful, as unbiased as possible, for example.
It is interesting that Wikipedia works so well with distributed gatekeeping. Some may think there are no gatekeepers with Wikipedia, but they would be wrong. It is just that the whole community can be gatekeepers, making Wikipedia the overall most accurate source of information there is.
So, try to think about what gatekeeping means for you. Be fair when you are the gatekeeper, be clear when you are trying to pass through the gate.