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Some publications had already resulted from the thesis research, but the advisor insisted that the remaining unpublished work be put in the thesis. The student proposed instead that he leave the unpublished material out and if anyone ever wanted to know more or get specific information, they could write to him and he would tell them what they needed to know and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.
8 months ago