Tuesday, August 24, 2010

CRC Young Scientists = Competition, Rudeness and Collaboration in the life of Young Scientists

'I know you, I have read your work'. (starts to walk away) 'You need to learn how to spell phosphorous* correctly!' was the first and only thing that one of my science heroes said to me when I introduced myself. I was crushed, depressed and wondered what I had ever done wrong to deserve such stupid and unnecessary negative feedback. I am not the only person who has been confronted with rude peers and academics. Many of my colleagues have had similar problems, some even worse.

I decided to delve into the issue of rudeness in science and academia. What are some of the things that happen? Why do they happen? What can we do about it? To do this, I have collated real stories from a range of scientists. Many of these scientists are early career academics or PhD students. I have also included the opinions and ideas from older and more experience academics, and also from mature age PhD scholars. The three questions were discussed with the contributors, or have been collated from previous discussions with them on the same issues.

What is rudeness in academia?

Early career academics tend to have unique problems when entering the world of academia. Many young academics, those undertaking a PhD degree, working or just finished their PhD suffer from what I like to term 'Unnecessary Soul Destruction'. Many of us have had our souls crushed at the hand of a senior academic or even by one of our own peers.

What do you mean by Unnecessary Soul Destruction (USD)?

Like each word implies, USD is the tearing of the soul as a result of persistent negative feedback, bullying, over-competitive behaviour, belittling and general rudeness from academics and peers. Some examples include:

A young and very capable Hydrologist had a co-author on one of her papers tell the other co-authors that she was crap. Funnily enough, the other co-authors disagreed and it got back to her. 

A soil scientist was repeatedly ignored by a peer because they disagreed, with good argument, about using their peers specific method of analysis. 

Several ecologist and soil scientist friends have had their thesis' examined and received personal and threatening comments including about being 'a pinko greeny' or 'You are from XX university, well I am just about sick of... '

On another occasion, someone was told 'How many times do I have to tell you that it doesn't exist! I am a genius! And A Churchill Fellow! You will listen to me!' by their boss when they tried to explain the problem of sodic soils and river bank erosion. 

Another time, a soily was very happy at seeing an old colleague. This was reciprocated with 'I read your thesis. It was crap. You should have done...'

At a conference, which is by far the most earth shattering of places, a Geologist was told her work was rubbish. There was much difficulty in trying to face the conference the next day. 

Each of these comments cause USD. The comments and actions are no longer about science. They become about ego and competitiveness. They are demeaning, rude, do not considers peoples thoughts, opinions or emotions, and in the end make people feel bad about themselves and that they are a lesser scientist. Sure, we all need feedback and criticism. But where does this blur with being out rightly rude? Do you really need to tell someone that they are crap and should have done better? Is it necessary to ignore someone just because they disagreed about the relevance of your work in their own research?

Isn't research, constructive criticism and feedback all about working through problems together, solving them and helping each other out? As a scientist, isn't it ok to question ideas and research, especially if you are able to explain why and in a reasonable manner? I thought to counteract some of the bad, I should also put in some examples of the good:

From a Hydrologist: "I feel personally that there is a huge lack of role models in science. There are plenty of scientists who are bad to extraordinarily bad role models, but I am the only PhD student of all I know (bar one who shared the same supervisor!) who had a good role model as a supervisor, who encouraged and supported me, taught me the tricks of the trade, gave me the tools I needed to be successful, created important networking opportunities for me, and was professional in his conduct at all times."

My own supervisors are always quite positive. They take the time to explain problems and solutions. They do not expect me to know everything (after all, I do have my Research L-Plates on) and are always very supportive. They give me advice when necessary, and also tell me when I have done a good job. They allow me to question and criticise previous work, and take the time to understand my thoughts.

At conferences, the best scientists are the ones who see you as an equal. The ones you can have a chat with about their topic, are delighted to meet you, and don't think you are stupid for asking questions. These are the scientists that make you happy.

So, we know that there is bad behaviour in the science and academic community. We also know what  good behaviour is in academia and research. So, why do we get the bad?

Competition vs Collaboration

Several people I talked to, myself included, have been advised to 'not talk to Dr. (insert name)  anymore, otherwise face career problems'. How outrageous! Clearly a 20-something old couldn't possibly know any more than a 40+ year old! So why do they feel so threatened and need to bully us out of a career pathway?

Money. Need I say anymore?

The inherent nature of funding of science and research is based on:
1. Papers
2. Papers
3. Papers
4. That you are fully-more-awesome-than-anyone-else

If you want a promotion, it is based on papers. If you want a grant, it is based on papers. It becomes about who is best at producing papers, and how much more awesome you are because of it. It has nothing to do with team work, rigorous methods, thinking outside the square, teaching ability, personal attitude etc etc. Instead it is about being the best in your field, infallible to question, and always right. To keep this position, you need to employ certain tactics. Wondered why peers and academics at conferences will often ask 'So how many papers  have you written and in what journals?' Well, I think this is how they measure a) if you are a threat, b) if you are worth talking too, c) can use you.

Threatened: Maybe they like your ideas and see you are smarter then them and could take all their research money?!?! They must dispose of you! This may be through demeaning and discouraging comments, behavior or other mechanisms to make you feel bad about yourself. Anything to make them feel more superior and look better, and make you feel bad about yourself. This is classic bullying behaviour over perceived power differences. 

You aren't good enough: Oh, you haven't published by the age of 6... sorry, not good enough. The eyes glaze over or they go on to tell you how awesome they are. This will be to make themselves known as being awesome, that you need to fear their competitiveness and their mighty paper list. Don't buy into it. Walk away. Again with the bullying behaviour...

I could use you: Collaboration as a relationship of convenience. This is where collaboration occurs with equally-awesome-people that are also in enough of a different field that it doesn't cause any problems of competitiveness or ego, or by the minions (research assistants, PhD students) under the wings of the big-wig. That is all well and good, but do you want to work with someone who is just using you?

Therefore, it is possible to suggest that the problems of over competitiveness, rudeness and USD is potentially related to the behavior caused by the funding and promotion system. Of course, this is only speculation and only one possible answer to the question. I am sure there are many more influences, including personality, gender, age, being a sore loser... etc... I am certainly not a sociologist or a psychologist, and I am sure there are plenty of others out there with more ideas and thoughts on this matter...

What can we do about it?

For this blogs sake, lets assume that one of the biggest problems is the structure and heirachy of Scientific and Academic field. One of my supervisors said to me:

'Jess, you can choose who you do and do not want to work with...'

He was implying that you can work with other scientists with whom you share the same ideals. In other words, you can work with a team that belittles you or you can choose to work with scientists that have good ideas, share knowledge, work as part of a team, educate and care about the science more than the money, fame or the publications. Although, this is somewhat of an ideal world... it is possible. Working as part of a selective team means greater happiness, better collaboration, and more job satisfaction. You can choose what grants to go for, and how it will best suit the team (not just the individual players).

Another tactic is to take more care in who you get introduced too. Personally, I am very cautious. I have had enough negative experiences now to wait and be introduced by someone I already know (and trust enough to know they like this person) or I tentatively introduce myself knowing it could end up dire.

Is academia and science for you? You will always have to put up with 'attitude' as long as there is the pedestal-based promotions and funding system. You either have to ignore it and focus on the science, or really ask yourself 'Is this really want I want to compete with? Can I really put up with this crap?' But don't leave it at that. Ask yourself 'Is their science REALLY any better than mine?' And should we be asking our funders and our organisations to consider things other than publications when deciding who gets the next promotion or $1 mill grant? Should the amount I have written really be the one and only thing considered in my job application? And if that is what the organisation is focused on, do I want to work there? Or do I want to work somewhere that values me as a scientist?

Also, do they really know how they are treating you? Years of racing to the top and learning familiar behaviour from other peers may have made them oblivious. Perhaps you need to gently tell them... 

Do you want to compete or collaborate for the prize?

So leave the big-wigs alone, let them play their silly games. It isn't going to make our science any better by over analysing their actions. All we can do is get on with the job, work with people we like, be introduced to other scientists by ones we already know (and trust), and try to change the funding and promotion system (although that is much more easily said than done). After all, Science and Research should be about working together to come up with creative solutions to real life problems, not comparing the size of your head!

Love to hear more of your own stories on your own experiences, why you think it happens and solutions to the problem! Please leave me a message below.

I would like to give my sincerest thanks to all the contributors to this post. You are all brave, strong and hard working individuals. I would also like to thank all the amazing supervisors out there; the ones that understand, take time, help, avoid negative criticism, and help us get through some of the hard parts of being a scientist and young academic. Without the good, we would only but fall into the bad.

*Note: There are two ways of spelling phosphorous/phosphorus


  1. Just saw this post on The Conversation today about the role of hormones in collaboration: http://theconversation.edu.au/aint-no-t-in-teamwork-fool-testosterone-makes-us-bad-collaborators-5233

  2. I was so damn impressed with what was said with the above. I am a 41 year old engineer that has taken nearly 15 years (part time studies) to get to the dizzy heights of an MSc. I also work at a university. On the whole, the research fellows (academics) are pleasant people and have worked their way up in the 'real world' to get to there levels. They are great to work with and engage with those grease monkey technicians/ engineers with politness, humour and have the most important of human attributes - PEOPLE SKILLS!
    There seems to be individuals that excell at the very lack of these skills and for some reason... they seem to get further than anyone else! Oh yes... as you rightly mentioned...its down to money. Now, I am very sorry but I was not born with a silver spoon up my arse and was not afforded a university education provided by mummy and daddy. I (and many others) had to take the further education route the hard way. I'll say one thing, we are far better people socially and have gain far greater respect than some of those who carry out their interlectual postering and chest beating by belittling those of us that have done it the hard way.

  3. Thanks for this post. It outlines some basic things about keeping one's academic focus in mind and at the forefront. I like the whole thing but especially the parts about not wasting energy over-analyzing other people's behavior. Thanks!