Pathological Personalities

Continuing with my re-posting from my old blog: in case anyone thought I was being a little harsh on Academics in that last post, go read the Mobius Stripper’s description of her interactions with her first advisor, the Eccentric Genius. Here, I’ll excerpt a little from the comments:

Jess – ah, the dread of meeting with the advisor. I don’t think mine bad-mouthed me behind my back – my EG was a man of few words, whose MO was to stare at me for long periods of time whenever I asked a question. He might have been thinking that I was an idiot; he might have been thinking about his (unrelated) research. Hell, he might have been thinking about what he was going to have for dinner. Who knows? I sure didn’t.

Just who taught that jerk that this was a way for one human being to communicate with another, especially a subordinate? I’ll tell you who. Every teacher or peer who ever excused his rudeness because he was brilliant. Every administrator and department head who excused poor behavior because they didn’t want him to go somewhere else. A grad school colleague of mine (a former Marine) used to be fond of saying, “if you can’t be smart, be nice”, but in Industry, smart is necessary but not sufficient if you want to get ahead. In the Academy, it’s necessary and sufficient. Hence we get Eccentric Geniuses who could have also grown a real human personality, but missed the opportunity because of the special environment in which they operate. And lest you think that MS’s experience rare, I’d say that this kind of interpersonal interaction is well within one standard deviation from the mean that I have observed in the Academy. Well within.

In several institutions I’ve been associated with, I have observed that many of the negative organizational pathologies can be traced back to one or two people who had an especially pernicious influence. I’ve noticed that one pathological personality in a position of authority can poison an organization for generations. Unfortunately, given the personal social histories of most scientists, I think pretty much every scientific organization is pretty much doomed to be influenced by a pathological personality early on in its lifecycle. Isaac Newton is a prime example for the Royal Society. Brilliant man. Miserable human being. The only thing that saves Industry is a combination of employment laws and interactions with divisions composed of individuals with higher EQs than the average scientist. I’m not saying that Industry is perfect, or that business people don’t have their own personality defects. But the defects of business people are different from, and complimentary to, the defects of many scientists, which makes life easier and more interesting to me. One of the lubricants that allows society at large to run smoothly is that, in most situations, personality peccadilloes are distributed across the spectrum of possible defects. In the Academy, both by training and by nature, there is a concentration of similar, negative behavior patterns that tends to become established and self-re-enforcing. It’s Enron with less money.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and give an example. I do not wish to burn any bridges in my own field, so I’m going to pick on another one with which an acquaintance of mine is reasonably familiar. When my acquaintance had (distant) relations with the NSF, Electrochemists had a reputation for behaving like wrestlers in a cage match. According to him, no electrochemist ever saw a proposal from another school of thought that he or she liked, according to his source in the agency (yeah, I know, FOAF, but Snopes doesn’t have an NSF category). If there are any electrochemists reading this, please feel free to dispute this assertion, but please have some evidence of collaborative tendencies in the field to back up your assertions. But my experience with Electrochemists leads me to agree that a significant number of them are World Class Peckerwoods.

I am more than a little familiar with the history of chemistry, and I lay the blame for this tendency to juvenile and aggressive behavior in Electrochemistry at the feet of a man who unfortunately is also one of my scientific heroes, I.M. Kolthoff. Almost every Ph.D. Electrochemist, most Analytical Chemists, and many Physical Chemists can trace their scientific pedigrees back to a student or Post-Doc of Kolthoff’s. Every major American Electrochemist I know of is a scientific child, grandchild, or great-grand-child of Kolthoff’s, with the minor exception of the Czech polarography inventor’s (Heyrovsky) progeny. So I really respect the man and his scientific legacy. But as a human being? Huh. Let’s let one of his most famous students (and a legendary solution chemist himself) J.F. Coetzee, tell it like it was:

Kolthoff could be harsh with his coworkers. I believe he did not fully realize just how intimidating he could be. Quite often after research conferences some of his graduate students and postdoctoral associates appeared to be in a state of shock. Kolthoff, in turn, would grumble afterwards about “a tale of woe” and “babe in the woods.” Nevertheless, the great majority of his coworkers became his devoted friends after they left. Kolthoff, in turn, expended great effort in promoting their careers, at least for those people who had satisfied him that they were serious professionals.

I can’t think of a better prescription for turning out nasty passive-aggressive personalities than this. Can you? “Didn’t realize how intimidating he could be”. Horse crap. A famous prof knows how famous he is, and just how much influence he has. This passage was written by one of his most devoted students and life-long friends. I wonder what one of those students he didn’t judge to be a “serious professional” would have to say? And how arbitrary were those judgments? I don’t know.

There is not much of a way to avoid this process. Humans are what they are, and scientists share certain personality traits because of both nature and nurture. But the grad student who is aware of the process before entering grad school may learn to combat it in him or herself, and can perhaps break the cycle in some small way. I hope I did.

* Let’s take a look at an example. In “Picking Your Poison” I wrote about the perils of the Ambitious Geek, especially untenured ones, but also newly tenured ones who had not yet acquired even the rudimentary people skills of an older prof. A possible way to mitigate this might be to pair off new profs and older profs as advisors to grad students, while making sure that the older prof didn’t siphon off the student’s time, preventing the student from working on the younger prof’s grant projects. It seems some universities used to do just that. Here is the reaction of modern profs to that system.

The graduate students at this time were scarce and largely netted by the senior faculty. In fact, junior faculty could only co-direct dissertations with senior faculty. In spite of this abusive situation, he stayed and eventually some graduate students joined his group helping to enable him to earn promotion to Assistant Professor.

Abusive? Abusive to whom? Certainly not to a grad student who has a home to go to if the junior prof is denied tenure and the student does not want to move. Grad students in experimental Chemistry should gravitate to senior faculty, if they know what’s good for them.

16 thoughts on “Pathological Personalities”

  1. One of the best decisions I ever made in graduate school was to bail out of a situation like that. There’s too much to do and to learn to waste your energies on a Big Cheese.

  2. I just met in a book an anecdot about Newton, where he’s said to make 6 “catholes” in his entry door. His cat delivered 5 kittens.

    Not that it has anything to do with your post…

  3. Oooo, I could tell you so baaaaaaad stories. Bad, bad stories. Mostly stuff that’s happened to friends, I was very fortunate at grad school and had great mentors and advisors.

    But here’s my piece of advice for any Chicagoboyz contemplating grad school: Choose an advisor with tenure. Though there are exceptions to this, many of the worst horror stories are about professors who are too busy mentoring themselves and steal opportunities from students.

  4. I avoided all this by going to law school. Good thing I was a mediocre undergrad, or I might have fallen into the world you describe.

    When I was at law school there was a minor scandal over in the history department. There was a professor who required all his grad students to show up at some location on Saturday mornings. A truck would pick them up and they would be brought out to do yard work on the professor’s farm all day on Saturdays. If they failed to show up or to do the work, he purged them from the program. Finally some guy, I think he was from Eastern Europe, raised Hell about it and got the practice stopped. Apparently this had gone on for years.

  5. Lex, I would think it was reverse: the prof was from Eastern Europe and the student who raised hell – a freedom-loving American…

  6. Tatyana – Newton is widely considered to be the inventor of the catflap. I don’t know if that is true.

    American culture is not monolithic. The kind of people who go to grad school in the humanities often are the lowest sort of group thinkers, because, as Shannon loves to point out, there is no objective mathemiatical grounds on which to judge the quality of their output. And they want that professorship so badly they can taste it.

    I can also see an Eastern European grad student in the first wave of immigrants after the fall of the Wall coming here and raising hell, becuase he was not going to take that crap over here, it was precisely to escape that crap that he came to study in the US.

  7. While no group is monolithic, John’s assessment seems to me more like what I have observed.

    First, grad students in non-objective fields are absolutely at the mercy of their teachers, and live lives of fear as a result.

    Second, these people are stripped of their pride and are willing to choke down anything to get ahead in a brutally competitive field, which encourages and enables the sociopathy John describes.

    Third, I have found that Eastern Europeans have more courage and more willingness to fight, are generally tougher, whether they are wrong or right, than most suburban-raised, risk-averse American white people. They come from a rougher background, and they are not soft, or particularly conciliatory, generally, in my observation. This is not always a positive, but sometimes it is.

  8. This was a post that has resonance across more fields than just the sciences! Nice work John.

    People who are departmental empire-builders ( corporate or academic)are assembling tribes of like-mided individuals. Their people in turn, mentor those most like themselves and self-referentiality prevents the inmates from understanding why their workplace resembles an asylum.

  9. Lex, thank you for painting my portrait.

    E.Europeans are tough because life in servitude made them tough. They have lived in the conditions you describe all their life – and often their parents did. In case of ex-Soviets, their grandparents d, too. But living in servitude either make you or break you – I mean, there are 2 sides of the medal: either you’re the one who’s exploiting, or the one exploited. More often than not – it’s the natural progression from one to another. It’s interchangeable. My compatriots have this saying “[today]I’m the boss- and you’re the fool, [tomorrow]- you’re the boss and I’m the fool”.

    Some immigrants came here because they wanted to break the circle of servitude, some brought the servitude circle in with them. I know many who continue live here by the standards of “there”.
    Unfortunately, the influencing is mutual. I wish all immigrants would leave their culture of slavery on the customs’ table at the border. For most people, that’s what in fact happens. However, there are cases when the natives are getting corrupted by the cycles of servitude the newcomers brought with them.

    That “yardwork” story sounds poaintfully familiar for anyone who ever heard about Soviet Army and typical practice of soldiers used as free labor resource for officers.

  10. “Eastern-European first generation immigrants are not monolithic.”

    Generally not, but that first wave of EE grad students between 1989 and 1995 was special. Top notch minds, yearning to breathe free, and strong enough to run from their safety nets and go for Western degrees that would push them into the stratosphere if they went back home (unfortunately for Russia, many didn’t, becuase the infrastructure did not stabilize, and the lunatics continued to run the asylum over there).

    Many of them had been champing at the bit to come over here for a long time, and I know several Kandidats who swallowed their pride and started in the US as a fresh Ph.D. student, just to get those magic letters. They were highly prized as students because they really hit the ground running. Also, they ruined the damn grading curve ;-). I know of others coming out of military / space labs as division leaders who took jobs as post-docs in that same time period.

    Since 1995 the bag has been much more mixed, but that first wave were a bunch of no-nonsense, great, talented people. Given Lex’s and my age, I’m pretty sure the guy he was describing was in that cohort.

  11. JJ, people you desribe were lucky. I know Kandidates who had to become taxi-drivers. I know Doctor in Non-Organic Chemistry who became a jewelery designer (and a very successful…after 12 years of struggle). I know many medical Drs who after being Heads of Departments for decades had to go through license exams, like a 25yo intern, just be a GP. And still they are happy to be here, in any capacity.

    Do you know what was happening in Russia in 93-97? Heads of labs, “leaders of industry” were selling bubble gum at the farmer’s market. And were happy they had earn something to pay for rationed bread to feed their families.

    Just as Americans aren’t monolithic, not in general population, not within a generation, a race or gender group – same goes for immigrants of any given wave. Within your 89-95′ large group were people Feds describe as “Russian mafia” – and people like a blogger I know: a woman who went into business from academia in Moscow (’90), started small, became big, emigrated on a business visa with minimal resources, and now one of the VP at IBM.

    It’s not a question of pride, at all.

  12. The Kandidats I know are Czech – for them it was a matter of pride, but I take what you mean about the Russians being in a much worse position. The grad students were a subset of that wave, and perhaps not indicative of the entire wave. There were plenty of Mafia in that first wave outside the intellectuals, and I know more than a few in Brooklyn today.

    I did several projects for my Russian and East European Studies classes on the state of Soviet science under Yeltsin. A lot of articles in pubs such as Arugmenty i Fakty from 1992 – 1998 (when I stopped keeping track) bemoaned the loss of prestige of the sciences. Science had a special issue on science in the USSR sometime around 1996 or 1997 touting the new “Center of Excellence” model, but the first thing I thought when I read about that was: “all the political players are going to use this as an excuse to purge the really useful scientists who were trying to branch out from the ordinary and ossify the status quo”, which is what I meant by my “lunatics still running the asylum” crack.

    That being said, I think that an article I read in Pravda about that time had it right, too. Science was one intellectual domain that had a bit more freedom than others, so many mediocre talents moved in to get out from under the strictures placed on other inteleectual endeavors. The USSR had a glut of researchers relative to its economy and population. There was an especial glut in areas that its infrastructure could not support, and in areas where there was not much need for original research anymore.

    The reseach topics got ossifed somewhere in the 1940s, and the German system that the Soviet Academy borrowed tended to perpetuate research over-specialization. For example, by 1989 there were no stand-alone “Power Engineering Institutes” in the West, but MPEI is still around, although I’m not sure how much research there is actually about power generation. (I am a veteran (2 summers)of the MPEI SSO system). So some purging was in order, I’m just not sure that the right people got purged.

    In the nineties, those who were good people, but didn’t quite have the guts to make a run for life in the West, got the shaft. The ones who came here to study in those early days were tough both emotionally and intellectually, I think.

    BTW, my institutions were MPEI and Kaunas Technical University, to give you aidea of where I’m making my gneralizations from.

  13. Lexington Green has a good point: If anything, the situation is even worse in the less objective sciences and I’ve often pondered why there are so many anti-social personalities in the social sciences.

    A good part of it is, I think, due to the history of these fields. Prior to the 1960s there wasn’t a big demand for PhDs in the social sciences as only a few universities offered undergraduate degrees in psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and the like, and the “studies” departments were pretty much unheard of.

    Then in a matter of a few years these departments became ‘the thing’ and every backwater university just had to offer a variety of social science degree programs. Driven by the demand for new programs, it wasn’t at all unusual for someone to do their MA in a year, their PhD the next, and be offered a tenure-track position before the ink was dry on their diploma. Some small few of these folks really were gifted, but most were not, so many of the new social science and studies departments were staffed with folks were were, to be generous, academically mediocre.

    The last thing any intellectual posseur wants is to be exposed, so they’ve ever since surrounded themselves with fellow mediocrities. Some even argue against the whole idea of merit as an avenue to admission and promotion (Now there’s a scary thought!).

    Is it any wonder that our universities are a mess?

  14. JJ, I don’t have major disagreements with what you said in your last. Reading WSJ just came across the name of a person I mentioned above, en ex-scientist/business woman from Moscow who’s now a big shot at IBM, Inna Kuznetzova. I’m linking it here so you’ll see I’m not exaggerating.

Comments are closed.