Understanding the “Matthew Effect”

By Meenu Johnkutty ‘21

Figure 1. New research shows that achieving early career success may set in place an upward trajectory for future success.

The most decorated and well-known scientists of our time may share an underlying characteristic: early career success. For those striving for prestige and world renown, achieving success early in one’s career may breed an environment conducive to further success. Thus, scientists who boast the same academic credentials, work ethic, and drive may find themselves outperformed by counterparts who achieved early career success. The phenomenon attributed to this idea, known as the “Matthew Effect,” has a name with Biblical origins: the phrase “To those who have, more will be given” is found in the New Testament book of Matthew.

A study led by Dr. De Vaan, an assistant professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, explores this phenomenon by investigating the Netherlands’ points system for awarding grants. Using the Netherlands’ points system as the subject of study allowed researchers to avoid early difficulties that prior researchers of the Matthew Effect encountered, such as proving the disparity between candidates chosen for achievement and those chosen for the quality of their work. The Netherlands’ points system avoids this conundrum by attributing points to each application. Those applications that pass a certain threshold are awarded grant money, while those who fall below are not.

The results of the study revealed that recent PhD graduates who scored above the grant threshold received twice as much more money as their peers who scored below the threshold. Though the initial differences between members of the candidate pool were low, the disparity in success became evident over the years: PhD graduates who received funding early on had a 47 percent higher chance at achieving full professorship later on in their career. Thus, the study sheds light on the biases present within scientific community that have the potential erode the quality of published work: favoring applicant credentials over quality of work stunts the future advancement of science.



  1. T. Bol, et. al., The Matthew effect in science funding. PNAS (2018). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1719557115.
  2. Image retrieved from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/pen-writing-notes-studying-8769/

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