Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On Paranoia

Today I want to discuss academic paranoia. Why? you ask, no doubt behind my back in a cruel way. If a particular type of behavior is observed (by me) at least 3 times within an arbitrary time frame defined by the limits of my memory and is perpetrated by at least 3 different people, I declare it a (possible) trend. And even if it's not, I'm going to discuss it anyway.

Note that in this discussion, I am talking about student behavior, though of course professors can -- on occasion -- behave in irrational and unpleasant ways as well.

Event 1: A student wanted to leave some information out of his thesis because he feared that others would use it "for their own purposes". Leaving aside for the moment the fact that most of us want others to use our research results (as long as they cite us appropriately), it is important to note that in this case I am not talking about research results with any monetary value -- this is basic research at its most basic.

Some publications had already resulted from the thesis research, but the advisor insisted that the remaining unpublished work be put in the thesis. The student proposed instead that he leave the unpublished material out and if anyone ever wanted to know more or get specific information, they could write to him and he would tell them what they needed to know and then he would give them permission to cite his thesis, even though the information wouldn't be in the thesis. Weird. If the info is in the thesis, the thesis can be cited if no further publications result. If the info is not in the thesis, it can't be cited. The student is not a control freak; he is seriously concerned that people -- maybe even his advisor -- will use his research results in super-secret ways without telling him.

Note: Results obtained using funds from certain types of grants are not owned by the individual who obtained them; there are specific stipulations about data recording, management, and archiving that supersede the individual's paranoia level.

Event 2:
As a joke, a student left an unsigned note on the office door of his friend, Stressed Out Student (SOS). The letter strongly implied that SOS would never finish his Ph.D. if he didn't work harder. SOS's first thought was that his advisor had left him this note. He sent his advisor a long email message about how hurt he was by this note, he emailed other professors about the cruel note that he thought was written by his advisor, and he no doubt freaked out his advisor's other students.

Even once the joker was revealed and expressed great surprise that his letter was not instantly recognized as a joke, the SOS had difficulty apologizing to his advisor, who was upset and offended by the incident. They had a discussion that went something like this:

Advisor: I would
never write a note like that, even as a joke. It is just not something I would ever do or would ever consider doing.

SOS: I hoped it wasn't you, but I needed to know for sure.

Advisor: But it was not even possible that that note was from me, so you shouldn't have needed to "make sure". It's really important that you know that I would never write a note like that.

SOS: I know, but I needed to know for sure.

Advisor: So you think it was possible that I would write a note like that.

SOS: No, but I needed to know for sure.

[advisor changed subject to Science Topic]

What was the source of this paranoia? The obvious answer is stress, but the student was well supported by grants throughout his graduate career, had some peer-reviewed publications, and had a postdoc lined up for when he finished his Ph.D. Unknown to his advisor, there might have been stressful things going on in his non-academic life, but that didn't make it any easier for the advisor to accept that the student was/is so deeply distrustful.

Event 3: A recent comment to this blog referred to a department that "hates" its students. The evidence: only a few professors showed up for a student awards ceremony and they didn't congratulate the students. I can see why students would be hurt by this, and ideally that department will take steps to find a way to increase faculty participation and acknowledgment of student achievement. However, I can also think of lots of non-evil reasons why professors might not attend such a ceremony, why they might not have the social skills to congratulate the students, and why they might not actually hate the students. I might even reveal some of these reasons, but I fear that students might read this and then the secret would be out.

I of course know nothing of the aforementioned department or its professors and it is entirely possible the professors pretend to have other engagements (e.g. lame reasons like child care, meetings, teaching/grading, travel, illness, proposal or other deadlines) but they actually secretly congregate in a local wine bar, the location of which is not known to students, and make disparaging comments about their students, whom they hate.

Stressed out students can behave in erratic, paranoid, and/or unpleasant ways
that can severely damage their relationship with their advisor and impact the working environment of a research group. I think most advisors are willing to accept some amount of freaked-out student behavior. Behavior that could be defined as within the realm of acceptable includes being a bit cranky or moody, expressing anxiety verbally in a non-abusive way, or even crying at particularly difficult times.

But then there is paranoid behavior, which, if expressed in certain ways, can be very damaging to advisor-student working relationships. It is surely unpleasant for the paranoid person as well and few people choose to be paranoid*, but it's too bad there isn't some way for a paranoid person to get a bit of perspective before making bizarre decisions, going nuclear on their advisor, or deciding that professors hate students.

Alas, there is probably no avoiding a moderate level of paranoia in the academic environment. Some of it might even be justified.**

* An exception is my mother-in-law.

** I know what you're thinking.


Anonymous said...

I started my masters about 2.5 months ago, and I am going through a slightly different type of paranoia -- why has no one done this research before? I keep having this niggling feeling that it going to turn out to be impossible and that much more brilliant people than me have tried and failed....

The_Myth said...

How old are the students involved? 20s? I think it might be generational...

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous - That kind of paranoia is reasonably OK, as long as you don't decide that Everyone knows that your research will fail and just isn't telling you.. If you can keep such thoughts at bay, perhaps you will discover some amazing new things in your research, and have a great time doing so.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think some departments (or at least a majority of professors in these departments) truly hate their students. That has been my experience with chemistry departments, at least.

cmb said...

Two things:
1. I actually don't know that this is so much generational--my field (primatology) tends to have both younger (G1=22 years old, so they finish before age 30) and older (G1=28 years old, so they're well into their 30's before finishing) and there's not a ton of difference between the younger students and the old ones in terms of insecurity, which I'm sure is the source of much of these types of paranoia.

2. I think this can also differ vastly by both field and school. I always thank god that its actually relatively hard to get scooped in primatology. I could work 16 hour days and it wouldn't matter--there's still only so much the monkeys are going to do. In high pressure fields where you've got quite a few competitors biting at your heals as you try to publish, it must be much easier to be paranoid. And even in my relatively chill field, there are definitely some departments that breed insecurity through their policies--they accept far more students than there are funding for, and then let them compete with each other to see whose field research is funded and who has to leave with a master's degree or nothing at all. The students in these departments seem to drink more...

My main point here is that while graduate students should probably not be considered the most stable bunch, as it turns out, there's a great deal that departments and academia in general do to breed insecurity in graduate students--after all, if you feel like your ass is on the line, you might work harder. Or you might have a breakdown and lose track of what it's reasonable to be paranoid about. I think there's probably a lot that individual departments and professors do to encourage the first kind of behavior rather than the second beyond just hoping that admittedly crazy grad students get a grip before we paranoia ourselves out of good relationships and career opportunities. :)

PhysioProf said...

I started my masters about 2.5 months ago, and I am going through a slightly different type of paranoia -- why has no one done this research before? I keep having this niggling feeling that it going to turn out to be impossible and that much more brilliant people than me have tried and failed....

You have to keep this kind of paranoia at bay if you want to be a creative scientist. Some of the greatest science happens when brave people try approaches that "everyone knows will never work".

BTW, just because you're a paranoid wackaloon doesn't mean there isn't a real conspiracy to fuck you up.

thm said...

I will admit that for my first several years in graduate school, whenever I saw a letter in my department mailbox my first thought was that it went something along the lines of "We are sorry to inform you that... a mistake has been made and... you are no longer enrolled... please pack up your desk and return your keys."

Of course the letters never said anything like that, but I did have some justification for the fear: in high school, I had taken a competitive academic competition test, and apparently done well enough to move on to the next round. So I got to take the second test, only to later be told that upon closer examination, my first test had been incorrectly scored and that my score was actually one point below the threshold needed to advance, so I really shouldn't have advanced after all.

And, come to think of it, I got a similar letter, months after being admitted to graduate school, from the GRE people saying that one question in my subject matter GRE had been incorrectly scored, and thus my subject matter GRE score was actually lower than had been reported.

FemaleBioProf said...

One thing I've always thought is weird about being a professor is that we keep maturing (hopefully) but the main people we work with - students - are always the same age. Behavior that didn't seem so odd to me in my late 20s is now approaching intolerable in my 40s. I don't think the students have changed, I just think I have less tolerance for the kind of behavior you are describing. Stress + immaturity = paranoid behavior.

Love your blog btw. We have had many similar experiences. I'm going to go back to the archives as I have time (which I do, now that the semester is wrapping up - woohoo!)

Anonymous said...

I see this sort of paranoia all the time - I also classify it as insecurity. I am at a top 10 university for my physical science and we are all very competitive people. My advisor isn't great about giving positive feedback (why should we need it? Maybe we shouldn't, but that's another topic.) and we are all competitive for his few compliments as well as to advance our own research and get papers. This leads to territorialism, poor collaboration between students and lots of high school-esque interpersonal dynamics.

Basically I think paranoia and insecurity are hallmarks of my graduate experience and I can't wait to get out of here. Hopefully, I'll still like science when I leave. Being an electrician like my father sounds like a good idea right about now...

J said...

I've noticed a lot of paranoia in my research group lately--worries that our advisor is sending in his son to spy on us, worries that he is colluding with and favoring the students of his own ethnic background to the exclusion of others, worries that our advisor does not care what research we do as long as it helps his notoriety, and worries that the post-doc will steal any ideas we have.

Most of these are almost certainly unfounded, but there are behaviors on the part of our advisor (and post-doc, but we'll leave that alone right now) that exacerbate these tendencies. They all come back to insufficient communication. Our advisor recently accepted an award at a meeting where everyone else who talked acknowledged his or her research group... except my advisor. And then, when he had told everyone who contacted him for the last month to wait to come to him for guidance until after this meeting, he very carefully did not tell anyone that he would be out of the office, out of the country, and out of contact for three weeks following the meeting.

I think faculty can minimize paranoia through good communication. Feeling as though one's advisor is secretive is an easy way to start feeling as though one should be, as well, and really reinforces the feeling that there's some secret network of information and politics that students don't understand.

Helen said...

I first learned about the freakish world of grad student paranoia when I was still an undergrad. The PhD student I was working with got steadily more bizarre, until finally our advisor had to separate us so that I no longer had to work with the PhD student directly.

The fundamental cognitive error that seemed to be at the source of his strange behavior at first was choosing not to recognize that other people's priorities weren't the same as his. Later he simply degenerated into attempts to control anything and everything he could, even if it meant destroying valuable work in the process.

I've seen the long, slow pressure-cooker of the doctoral process do some really strange things to people. When I started on my doctorate, I contacted several friends and made them promise to club me upside the head if I ever started acting that way.

Female Science Professor said...

I don't know what you mean by "some", but no, I don't think this is typically the case.

Anonymous said...

I think anonymous #1 has a good point about paranoia, insecurity, and positive feedback. I haven't received anything positive from my PhD advisor for years. Imagine in the business world if you never got complimentary performance review, a raise, or positive feedback about your work and it seemed that your boss did not care either for you or your work. All the time, you'd be working harder and harder. It is personal in graduate school because so much is invested.

Non-fiction scientist said...

I strongly agree with the comments of "J".. better communication can alleviate paranoia.
I am a postdoc and just got an offer for a faculty position, so I feel like I am in that "in between" transition world of student and faculty. I think both parties share responsibility. I know as a grad student I felt very protective of my research, in large part because I did not feel valued, and was worried I would not get credit for my hard work, this resulted in me "acting out" immaturely in several instances. Once I moved on to my postdoc, matured, got some perspective, it was no big deal and I did get credit (and still am getting credit) and now I don't care who sees my research before/during/after it is published. So in that case, I was immature and unexperienced, but my advisors could have done a better job of responding to me and reassuring me when I expressed concerns.
Secondly, I have seen advisors act very immaturely. For example, I have seen advisors "play favorites" in a group, which contributed enormously to back-stabbing, gossipy, paranoid group behavior. I think the PI has to accept responsibility for setting the tone of the group dynamics.

Anonymous said...

does 'paranoia' include constantly worrying that you have angered your advisor??? because that is my life. my advisor not only plays favorites, she also picks on one person for a few months and then moves on to the next person. I am going to come out of my doctorate with post-traumatic stress disorder

BAS said...

Three points:
1) I also think it is quite easy for professors to lose sight of what it was like to be new to the field of science and research. In my experience, it can be a secretive world, where the success/failure of a worthy idea can involve some politic-ing (or spin). Its scary for someone new to just step in and do this, especially without good mentoring.
2) The combination of my perceived "worth" as a researcher lying in my intellectual property, combined with poor advising and poor mentoring (I'm the first PhD student I have seen graduate from my department in the time I have been here, so no role models), and of course, the fact that science/engineering people are pretty poor at communication anyway, leads to some weird behaviour.
3) "lowly" grad students are often privy to conversations away from the ears of other profs. and sometimes our paranoid behaviour is actually reflecting that fact. for instance, I resisted putting a prof. on my defense committee because I knew that prof. resented/disliked my advisor, and would likely use the comittee meetings as a way to indirectly dig at my Advisor. Did my advisor think I was paranoid for not wanting this prof on my committee? maybe. Better than me having to break the news that other prof hates advisor's guts and talks about Advisor in a disparaging way around the department (I'm not naive enough to think Advisor is oblivious, but the full extent of the resentment is definitely not known to Advisor). Especially true since Advisor is poor for sticking up for students in situations such as these.

My experiences may be totally unique, but bottom line I think a lot of the paranoia you describe can be attributed to poor mentoring and communication about what a grad student *should* be expecting (both work and rewards) at each step of the process, which can lead to scared and insecure students. A perceived or real lack of support can also exacerbate the situation.

CAE said...

All three of the postdocs in my old lab got scooped within a two year period. One girl quit (she probably would have anyway, for unrelated reasons), one guy struggled through by changing his research focus and is now doing well, and I managed to get my work published anyway!

(my paper was literally 3 days away from submission when I got scooped by an e-pub paper that wasn't actually in print yet, so it was clearly independent and the reviewers just asked us to rewrite the discussion to include the other paper. The overlap was substantial but not 100%).

So the entire lab was paranoid for a long time, and probably still is! There are sometimes justifications for academic paranoia!

Female Science Professor said...

That kind of paranoia is OK and typically is justified. That's different, though, than the "my advisor hates me, everybody hates me and is out to steal my work and make me fail" kind of paranoia, which is only justified 17% of the time.

Laura said...

I don't think that all advisors hate their grad students. I do think that there are advisors who don't do their jobs very well. I'll never forget the defense that I attended where the student very warmly thanked another PhD student for all of his help and support; she then coldly looked at her advisor and said, "I acknowledge that Bob is alive." The audience was stunned into silence.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh! I made that comment about the 'professors that hate their students'! I didn't mean it seriously like that, I swear! Sarcasm was kind of hard to get across in print form. I just think that they didn't care and didn't think it was important, which is a pretty sad state of affairs. They just wanted it over with as fast as possible. All the other department functions, they are happy to be there and they bring out the good food and wine, but for grad students? No...

I'm not stressed out or paranoid. I just wanted at least as much food as visitors from a government agency got when they toured our facilities. At least half as much? Is that too much to ask? The other behavior just made it worse. They didn't have any valid reasons like child care or meetings. They could have showed up for 15 minutes and talked to a student for at least one of those minutes. It's not that they 'hate' their students, I didn't mean it like that. They just don't really care about showing them any appreciation during the Graduate Student Appreciation Day and don't see the problem with that.

Ms.PhD said...

Maybe if our advisors weren't so

a) manipulative
b) non-communicative
c) passive-aggressive

and maybe if we weren't having to find out from other people that they do talk about us when we're not around to defend ourselves and explain that they're jumping to ill-informed and completely incorrect conclusions about our work habits, abilities, or personal lives

then we would not be paranoid at all?

Alas, maybe it is better not to know what they actually say about you to your lab mates or other professors in the department (or to people who you were hoping would want to hire you).

Or maybe we should all be on Twitter so that everyone can see what we're actually doing at every minute of every day, which would alleviate the need for them to speculate wildly?

I sure would love to know what the hell my advisor does all day.

Female Science Professor said...

Sarcasm is good! I sometimes forget to use the sarcastic font too. As you can see from the comments, though, some students really do believe their professors are inadequate student-hating people, alas.

Female Science Professor said...

ms. phd: Your comment reminded me of a former grad student who kept a chart in which he wrote down my activities in 30 minute time blocks. "3:00-3:30 FSP on phone, checked mailbox in department office", and so on. If you asked him, he could have told you exactly what I did with my day. He also stood behind doors and listened to my conversations, rifled through my briefcase, and was discovered going through my desk drawers. He was convinced that I had extra grant money that I wasn't sharing with him, that I had research ideas I wasn't telling him about, and that I had other professor secrets that I was withholding from him because I was a typical uncommunicative professor. I had absolutely no idea what he did with his time other than track my every move -- he sure wasn't getting any research done.

Anonymous said...

when I read about some of the experiences of people here with bad advisors, I just wish you could spend a week working with mine. It would restore your faith in humanity.

Nicole said...

I think it's unreasonable for the professor in Situation #2 to be offended that the student thought there was a possibility s/he might write such a letter. The level of immaturity the student showed in reponse to the letter was about normal for that age/stage, but not the professor. It's important that s/he tried to compassionately convey to the student that s/he would never do such a thing. But continuing to feel bad or be offended about it shows a lack of understanding of current Ph.D. students' situation. It is more difficult now than it was when most professors were students.

Female Science Professor said...

I disagree. I think most people would be hurt/offended if someone erroneously thought they had played a cruel joke on a vulnerable person. It is not an issue of maturity unless the advisor reacts in some way that negatively affects the student, and that has not been the case. I also disagree that this was a normal response based on the student's age/stage. I like to think that most people would have asked around a bit to find out who wrote the note.

I also don't agree with your last statement.

Ms.PhD said...

Wow, that student you describe as rifling through your briefcase sounds like a lunatic! Never seen one that bad.

My concern for my advisors' whereabouts and activities began in grad school, when I was often the only person in lab and constantly being questioned by various faculty, visitors, and administration as to where my advisor was.

Like I was his wife, or secretary?

When other lab members were there, they would always lie and say he was at a meeting, and then admit to me they didn't actually know where he was.

I grew tired of trying to cover for him. He didn't tell us anything about his trips, so we didn't benefit when he attended meetings, and he often just didn't show up for work (but didn't say he was working from home, and didn't answer emails or the phone).

My current advisor does not disappear without warning, but considering how much time is spent traveling, you'd think we'd be swimming in reports on what is being presented at these meetings all over the world. But we're not.

Meanwhile, things we are not allowed to do without The Stamp of Approval are languishing in the Journal of Advisor's Desk.

So we can't help but wonder, what is so important for our advisor to do that it delays everything we care about by months and years?


And I do agree with Anon who says it's harder now than it was when most of our professors were students.

And so do most of my professors.

They just don't know what to do about it.

Most of the people I work with are ~30ish years older than I am, and they came up when there were more university-level teaching/research jobs (in my field) than there were qualified PhDs.

And postdocs were optional, short, and usually unnecessary.

Now the situation (at least in my field) is quite the opposite. And that leaves us with mentors who feel helpless because they can't draw on their own experience to advise us. What worked back then for them will not work for us now.

I know some fields (like physics) went through this same market shift earlier, so younger folks like FSP might have experienced a job market that hasn't changed much in the last ~20 years.

Nicole said...

As I understood it, the student thought the letter was serious, that they should work harder or not make it, not a joke. Perhaps I misread the post.

It is more difficult now for science Ph.D. students than when most professors were students, at least in the fields I am familiar with (physics, astronomy, biology). It is harder to get a permanent job, it is harder to get grant money, it is harder to buy a house, it is harder to pay bills. Professors who do not recognize this are out of touch.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I wouldn't be so paranoid about getting credit for my work if I actually got credit. Right now I have three projects I started, collected data for, analyzed and will write up. My fellow grad students get to put their names on my work and even get their name on a project they did nothing for. I do not get any extra hand outs like that.

science cog said...

I think the student who played that cruel joke on the other student should be reprimanded in some way by the graduate director. That was not funny, to play on another student's insecurities like that.

The advisor and student should try to patch things up even though both are hurt and shaken by the incident. Easier said than done, of course.

Becca said...

Very interesting post- I'm glad I read it. I've certainly experienced grad-school associated paranoia before. Actually, I was just having kind of a bummed out 'geeze it seems like nobody likes me' sort of day yesterday.

I think you've seen some really bad cases. I've actually been kicked out of two labs (so far, though please-never-again god-forbid!) and I don't even think either professor hated me, wanted to steal my work or wanted me to fail. They just didn't like me... or not even that, they didn't respect me as a professional (partially due to things I did wrong, undoubtably), and truth to tell, I don't think they knew how to mentor me.
To be totally honest, I'm pretty neurotic and extra-young... so if I'm not the worst of the bunch, I think it might be that you have to have a particularly bad sutation to bring on full paranoia. Possibly I'm more mature than I give myself credit for, but more likely I've just encountered enough positive, encouraging, upbeat people in science to counterbalance the innate suceptibility to paranoia.