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The implications of educational and methodological background for the career success of Nobel laureates: an investigation of major awards


Nobel laureates have achieved the highest recognition in academia, reaching the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding. Owing to past research, we have a good understanding of the career patterns behind their performance. Yet, we have only limited understanding of the factors driving their recognition with respect to major institutionalized scientific honours. We therefore look at the award life cycle achievements of the 1901–2000 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine. The results show that Nobelists with a theoretical orientation achieved more awards than laureates with an empirical orientation. Moreover, it seems their educational background shapes their future recognition. Researchers educated in Great Britain and the US tend to attract more awards than other Nobelists, although there are career pattern differences. Among those, laureates educated at Cambridge or Harvard are more successful in Chemistry, those from Columbia and Cambridge excel in Physics, while Columbia educated laureates dominate in Physiology or Medicine.

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  1. 1.

    Such a skewed distribution is common in all kind of academic environments and settings with respect to publication and citation success (see, e.g., Hirsch et al. 1984, Hogan 1986, Cox and Chung 1991, Torgler and Piatti 2013 in the area of economics).

  2. 2.

    Kolbert (2007) nicely points out this problem in an article in The New Yorker, discussing particle physics and the work environment around CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

  3. 3.

    To better clarify his point: qualitative research which can be theoretical but also empirical is the prerequisite to a successful quantification (p. 213).

  4. 4.

    “… the methodological directive, “Go ye forth and measure,” may well prove only an invitation to waste time. If doubts about this point remain, they should be quickly resolved by a brief review of the role played by quantitative techniques in the emergence of the various physical sciences” Kuhn (1977, p. 213).

  5. 5.

    For laureates who received the Nobel Prize twice, we use only the first Nobel Prize award [i.e. Marie Curie (Chemistry 1911), John Bardeen (Physics 1972) and Frederick Sanger (Chemistry 1980)].

  6. 6.

    For further valuable resources on eminent people see Aubrey (1898/2007)s Lives of eminent men or Cattell’s (1921) American Men of Science biographical directory.

  7. 7.

    For example, Walter Kohn has PhDs from Harvard (1951) and Toronto (1954). We therefore classify him under Toronto and Canada. Alan G. MacDiarmid is another example with a Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin (1958) and from Cambridge (1961). He is therefore classified under Cambridge and Great Britain.

  8. 8.

    In 21 cases (out of 525 laureates) they observed a combination of theoretical and empirical work. These were classified under theoretical.

  9. 9.

    All the t-tests in this paper are conducted with single yearly values rather than moving averages.

  10. 10.

    For a discussion on the test see Cameron and Trivedi (2009, p. 561).


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Correspondence to Benno Torgler.

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Chan, H.F., Torgler, B. The implications of educational and methodological background for the career success of Nobel laureates: an investigation of major awards. Scientometrics 102, 847–863 (2015).

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  • Nobel Prize
  • Nobel laureates
  • Awards
  • Recognition
  • Educational background
  • Theory
  • Empirics
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Physiology or Medicine