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.