Thursday, August 21, 2008

Convergent Evolution or Unnatural Selection?

At the recent workshop I attended, one of my colleagues remarked that all the members (past and present; male and female) of a particular research group resembled each other: they were all fit, attractive, had short hair, and most of them were tall, just like the professor who heads this group.

Over the years I have observed other examples of research group members resembling each other. For example, another research group with which I am familiar is mostly comprised of thin men with beards. Just like their supervisor, all of the students and postdocs are runners, though some became runners after joining the group.

The ones who previously had no interest in running are the ones who concern me. I can see why they don't want to be left out, but what if someone doesn't want to train constantly to run 10k races? Would such a student be less likely to be accepted to work with this group?

As a postdoc, I was in a research group in which I (the only woman) was the only one who did not have an interest in a particular extreme sport. My lack of interest in this sport (and certain death) didn't exclude me from being hired, but I was definitely left out of the reindeer games at which scientific discussion occurred. That's a classic problem experienced by anyone who doesn't share the characteristics or interests of the majority, but in the case of sports or hobbies, in theory you can become part of these activities.

In some cases, research group resemblance stems from the fact that group members dress alike (= convergent evolution). For example, I recall the vivid sight at a conference of numerous turtlenecked male graduate students gathered around their turtlenecked advisor. They all had their hair cut in approximately the same way and none had facial hair. They looked like they were in some kind of dorky cult.

When I was a graduate student, one of my fellow students took to wearing the same kind of tweed jacket-turtleneck combo as our advisor wore (what is it with turtlenecks?), and he attempted the same style of facial hair. I thought this was bizarre. I never figured out the motivation for this type of mimicry, and don't know whether it was done deliberately or subconsciously.

The question is: Do members of some research groups 'evolve' to look like each other (typically by altering their clothing and hair style and perhaps acquiring certain hobbies) or do some advisors tend to select advisees who have certain characteristics and interests?

I think the answer is both, maybe.

If 'selection' occurs, it may involve people with similar interests gravitating towards each other because they feel most comfortable with this situation. The danger of this of course is that 'other' people might be excluded, even if not deliberately, and that many of these other people may be women or members of other underrepresented groups.

I suppose it is natural to want to feel like part of the team if you're working in a research group, and perhaps dressing alike is a benign part of that effort, as long as the team is diverse in other ways.

Some of this type of superficial resemblance can be unintentional. I was once walking with 2 of my grad students, when we suddenly realized we were all wearing the exact same kind of rain jacket. I immediately thought of the Cult of the Turtleneck and felt anxious. It turns out we had all gone to the same sale at a local store. At least we had each selected a different color jacket. In fact, one of my students asked me if I had gotten to the sale late, perhaps in reference to my unusual color choice. And he was right.

I don't think I selectively accept grad students who share characteristics or interests with me, but maybe it is hard to escape from this tendency entirely. I was once taken aback when meeting a prospective grad student at a conference. She was wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh shirt, and I wondered why someone would wear something like that at a conference. But then I thought: Is that any more juvenile than a young man wearing a baseball cap? Why does it matter what she (or a baseball capped guy) is wearing? I had to talk myself into this, though, but in the end I think I convinced myself. I don't want to work only with people who are just like me.

40 comments:

Drugmonkey said...

ha! yes, one particular trainee who all of sudden adopted her PIs (distinctive) hair and clothing style. It was pretty freaky when it first happened....

Anonymous said...

I think one thing that might help build diversity in a research group is to have a potluck dinner where everyone brings a dish that is somewhat symbolic of their research project.

At one university I was at, we had food at the group meetings. One very clever grad student demonstrated how a certain cooking technique inspired her to make her devices. She incorporated the technique into her group meeting talk. It was the best group meeting ever.

I like diversity because it inspires creativity.

PhysioProf said...

Very interesting post. The tendency towards conformity in research groups you describe, and the exclusion of those who do not conform, is excatly the reason that I have explicitly chosen not to befriend my trainees and/or to socialize with them regularly. We go out for lunch a few times a year to celebrate noteworthy events in the lab, but that is it. No drinking parties, no rock-climbing excursions, no river-rafting trips, no museum visits, etc.

This ensures that we maintain an equitable environment where no member of my lab has greater or lesser access to professional scientific interaction with me or with each other depending on the whims of their hobbies or personal lives. That kind of extramural shit also definitely has a very uneven impact on scientists with children--particularly female scientists with children--who really can't go away on rock-climbing trips with a bunch of unmarried doucheknockers in matching turtlenecks.

justin said...

It could be unconscious. There's a substantial psychological research literature showing we use our body language and gestures to mimic those in power over us as an affiliative strategy.

plam said...

Ha, that was really funny. I have definitely observed differences between research groups, but not so much the identical-clothing-phenomenon.

Another weird thing I noticed was that in my old office, students got replaced by other students that were similar in character: the athletic American student was replaced by another athletic American student; the Eastern European by another Eastern European.

Me, I was replaced by a couch.

Anonymous said...

The phenomena you so amusingly describe might also contribute to gender inequalities in certain academic specialities (or any occupation).

After all, it would feel a bit alienating if everyone else were wearing turtlenecks and I wasn't!! Waaaaa....

Geeka said...

I find myself mimicking my boss. We will be in a lecture hall sitting next to each other, and I realize that we are sitting in the same position: Right leg crossed over left, hands laced behind head.

It happens unconsciously. I think that because something is so familiar, it seems normal, unless someone else points it out.

We also have the same goofy sense of humor, which extends to T-shirts, so when we each get a new one, we check with each other to find out if the other has it.

JRB said...

I did not see this as I worked for a female adviser in grad school who had no hobbies outside of working. I was the first and so far only female PhD student she had ever had, and she and I did not dress alike. I did however have to defend her fashion choices on a few occasions to the rest of the group (all male). Why is it that the nicely-dressed, middle-aged woman gets criticized for wearing nice clothing (think Hillary Clinton pant suits, bright colored blazers), while the slovenly male faculty wearing ratty 30-year-old shirts go unnoticed?

I have also seen this group hobby thing happen. I figured entrance into the boys-club would require playing golf and watching football. But several of the guys I work with, inlcuding big boss people, go hunting together. Golf, I could handle. Killing things, I just can't do.

L said...

Well, I don't look like my advisor. Apart from that she has dark hair, and we both have a lot of European genes, we could not look less alike, I think.

One group in my department, though, all wind up wearing sleeveless vests, just like their advisor. However, unlike their advisor, they don't get half-undressed every time they answer their cell phones. (Inexplicably, but endearingly, he keeps his in his shirt pocket, under the vest. Watching him dig for the thing is always deeply amusing)

Anonymous said...

Very funny. My group is fairly diverse-looking, ranging from the larger student who is shaggy and smokes, to the stereotypical-looking sorority woman who is one of the best undergrads who I've worked with in years. Our group photos always look funny. But sometimes several group members will wear our lab t-shirt on the same day and then there's that cultish appearance.

Anonymous said...

We have an annual Halloween party in which everyone dresses like their advisor.
However men in one group refuse to wear a dress on the occasion to dress like their advisor. They are afraid of getting her angry.

Anonymous said...

This post keeps making me imagine scenarios in which one of these guys shows up for an interview wearing a turtle neck, and afterwards when they're talking about it the whole turtlenecked group keeps saying "I don't know what it is about him... but he just seems like he'll fit in so well".


Also, that idea about dressing up for Halloween as your advisor is absoluletely hilarious.

Chris said...

I seem to recall in high school, perhaps even grade school, being told that one way to "better yourself" is to emulate those you admire. I think there's some truth to it (I know I could stand to emulate someone with better work-out habits), but appearance mimicry would certainly strike me as odd.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Some of us in grad school nearly did have a party where we would dress up like a member of the faculty -- any member would do.

Since my advisor was a seventy year-old man who dressed quite formally, and I was a 30-ish female who lived in jeans and turtlenecks, there was no danger of the mimicry taking place. My secondary mentor was female, but she was sylphlike and a funky dresser in a way that I admired, but knew wasn't "me."

Theodora said...

My boss and I immediately hit it off a year ago and we work extremely well together. I do think that part of this is that we have the same educational background, commitment to environmental issues, political leanings, we are about the same size and body type, we have the same hair color, and (jeebus, this is getting freaky) even the same fashion sense although she dresses appropriately for her age and I for mine. We can practically read each others' minds. And believe me, neither of us *changed* anything -- we just felt instantly comfortable together.

My point is, I think we do gravitate toward people like us, and we have to take a *lot* of care not to exclude others from our comfortable little cliques.

AsstFemaleProf said...

I'm just starting my research group. In my previous groups, I always noticed that there was a divide: international students hung out and American students hung out. I'm trying to fight this by having monthly dinners. I figure that everyone has to eat, and if I pick up the bill, there is no reason for everyone not to come (we are arranging carpools as well). And "significant others" are invited - after all, I want to spend time with my husband!

Each month one student gets to choose the restaurant, to introduce the rest of the group to a part of their culture. I'm hoping that if the students get to know a little bit about each other in a more social context, then the lab will be a happier place.

What is the saying? The family that eats together, stays together?

But I experienced the exclusion - I was in a lab where most of the group was very athletic - triathlons. I can run, but running+biking+swimming - not going to happen. But the PI knew I was at least running, so it was "okay". However, I saw how the students who didn't do any of it were treated - they weren't invited to lunch or coffee, which is where collaborations happen. I don't ever want any of my students to feel like second class citizens.

It can be very difficult to come up with group activities that everyone can do.

Food (dinner, potlucks, etc) is one. Any other suggestions? I can't keep feeding them forever!

Alex said...

I don't think the people in my grad school group were that much alike, but I was the one who rarely did a lot of hanging out after hours.

However, when I graduated, I was replaced by my former roommate, who became a postdoc in the group. He and I are very different, but he also became the outsider.

As a professor now, I notice that I've adopted a few of my advisor's mannerisms. However, I refuse to start counting my change during seminars.

Rhea Miller said...

I think it has more to do with finding yourself within a new group...people feel the need to fit in and become respected/liked before they go off on their own. Like kids acting like their parents before they rebel.

Global Girl said...

My advisor wears dark, worn socks with white Birkenstock sandals.

I am currently wearing three-inch heals in protest against conceptions of female scientists and engineers.

I am waiting for the day when my advisor is taken away by the fashion police. Perhaps it is shallow of me, but I have trouble with all of Winnie-the-Pooh t-shirts, baseball caps, and Birkenstocks with socks. If you're a professional, surely you can learn to get dressed in the morning as a courtesy to your colleagues.

Professor Staff said...

I see no such convergence in interests in my group, but definitely see some selection biases. I think we may use the "familiar" to make judgments about the nonacademic but important aspects of a student when making a selection of a grad student: things such as work ethic, diligence, determination, throroughness, etc.

I do participate in an "extreme sport" which so far none of my students participate in (I'll admit I wish they did, but I don't know why). If I was considering a potential graduate student who indicated expertise in this sport, I would likely be more interested. Why? It would provide an additional venue for judgment in areas such as a propensity for risk taking, judgmental prudence, how someone reacts under pressure or timelines, etc. Lets face it, we are often faced with choosing from among a wide range of equally qualified potential graduate students, so how does that choice finally get made?

As a real example of what might be some subconscious intentional selection on my part, I am a male mid-career professor with a research group that is majority female (in a field where the balance is 50/50, but male-dominated on our campus). I no longer think this is by chance. I am the only male in my household (female children, married to a female science PhD). This is pure speculative self-analysis on my part, but over time I have found it easier to deal with female-specific rather than male-specific gender issues that often come up in interpersonal graduate student and student-advisor issues (some of which I think you've written about in the past).

I suspect we all do it to some degree, but I do find things like clothing and physical appearance kind of bizarre -- is this a humanities thing? :)

Anonymous said...

I have no answer, but an anecdote from the humanities. I studied with an archaeology professor, a stylish man in his 50's, who wore his hair short and frosted blond, though his natural hair is dark.
I was going through multiple styles and colors at the time, but it was while I had my hair short and growing out from blonde that he invited me to come along as his research assistant to Greece. Over the month between the end of term and the trip, I cut it again, getting rid of the blonde entirely.
I will never forget how appalled he sounded when he said "why did you change your hair?!" Strange.

GirlProf said...

Convergent evolution sounds reasonable. A particular type of person is attracted to undergraduate studies, and then a peculiar type is entranced by the idea of further graduate study. People attracted to the professoriate represent such a small segment of the general population. Divide the sample further into faculties and departments, and you begin to get the picture. The road to success is both obvious and mysterious -- I advise tenure track hopefuls to conduct and publish interesting research, teach well, and contribute to governance through service. The mysterious part is "how to get an edge" - survival of the fittest - at the simplest level, try to look like you fit in, you are part of the crowd, you are not threatening the herd.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that styles of dress and facial hair are not the only way in which students mimic their advisers. Attitudes regarding the capabilities of women and other minorities in the sciences are also likely to be passed from advisor to student.

TW Andrews said...

It's a pretty well documented fact that people who hire have some degree of bias in favor of people like them. It can be mitigated to some extent by careful attention, but not entirely.

Kea said...

Sheesh, that explains a lot. Where were all those buxom blonde mountaineers in Theoretical Physics grad school when I was there? (Of course, I was the only female at the time). Maybe if I'd mimicked the hand waving dismissive scoff attitude of some colleagues I'd have fitted in better. Do you think?

siz said...

I think it's weird that physioprof chooses to have no personal interaction with her trainees for fear of group conformity.

I think group lab excursions are a great way to foster team-work and a happy work environment. Every lab I've worked in has had them.

But also, I've never seen labs where everyone looks the same either.

It does stand to reason though that similar types of people end up working with similar types of people in research groups. It's not all about the science. If you're gonna work 70 hours a week it makes sense that you'd want to be with people who have similar interests and past-times.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about style of dress (my advisor favors collared shirts open far enough to expose chest hair), but students of my advisor have definitely been known to copy his extremely distinctive mannerisms. To preserve anonymity, I won't list them, but loud nose/throat noises are included. We always know someone has been spending too much time around the advisor when he (and so far all mimickers have been male) develops a mysterious sinus condition.

cog said...

There is a definite tendancy for research groups to develop a common fashion sense. For example, the kakhis & birkenstocks group. I recall being humourously referred to as a cow, my jewellery jangling away announcing my arrival. I didn't take offense and still wear what pleases me. Now that I think about it I picked one or two statement items to blend with the group and ignored the rest out of choice in some cases and necessity in others.

anon said...

well, my group doesn't share hobbies and such, but we're a close knit group. all of us grad students are friends and collaborators.

oddly, my advisor kind of reminds me of my father (certain mannerisms, views on sibjects). So, it's not so much all of us resembling each other, but I guess that's a bit odd.

Anonymous said...

Mimicking clothes and manners may not be a problem.
What really bother me is that many professors tend to hire people of their nationalities [at our department].
Chinese professors have mainly Chinese students and postdocs etc. Once established, this national homogeneity is passed on and on and on...
Is this looking bad? Can such approach harm the quality of work? What do you think?

A Life Long Scholar said...

In addition to doing Science, I also belong to a Historical Recreation organization which spans a number of centuries. My personal interest in the costume side of things is for the early Medieval styles, and I've always disliked the look of the Renaissance styles. For quite I while I was guilty of wishing that the span of time period this organization covered was narrower, so that there were no Renaissance costumes at our events.

And then one day I was at a friend's house during the 20th Birthday party of his Very Trendy son. Looking at the crowd of young people I was appalled to see that they had all been cut from the exact same cookie-cutter with no diversity in their appearance whatsoever.

From that day on, I have revelled in the diversity of my organization. I may not like the look of the Renaissance clothing any more than I ever did, but at least we aren't all dressed the same!

flit said...

hmm...note to self ...must find a thin research advisor for PhD program.

The AstroDyke said...

One of my advisers dressed like a rodeo clown. Thankfully, the research group only adopted the sartorial style once: on Halloween.

PhysioProf said...

I think it's weird that physioprof chooses to have no personal interaction with her trainees for fear of group conformity.

Huh!? Where the fuck did I say I choose to have "no personal interaction" with my trainees!?

What I said what that I choose "not to befriend my trainees and/or to socialize with them regularly". That's a big fucking difference! I have personal interaction with my trainees almost every fucking day! In the fucking lab!

Ms.PhD said...

I think I've written before about a lab I interviewed in where the hobby of choice was gambling. I didn't join the lab because I didn't like the hobby or the chumminess that seemed to be required. I'm not a joiner. I'm there to work, and I'd rather work with people who are there for the science.

Cultish labs are a sick, sick thing that needs to go away. It's the antithesis of diversity. The person who pointed out that mimicry leads to passing on the same biases is exactly right. It's bad for hiring, but it's also terrible for science. The lab I work in now, for example, is terribly insular and narrow-minded, they all sit around and reinforce each other's wrong thinking. It's horrifying.

I think physioprof has the right idea. The lab is a great place to hang out and get to know each other in a professional, productive way. More than that can lead to favoritism, even if it's unintentional.

Beth J said...

The lab that I'm not a part of isn't characterised by a particular activity or fashion identity as such... but there are 5 women in the lab group (and it isn't a big lab) who are all under 5'3"!

Anonymous said...

Our lab is diverse even though it is small. I am the only female student but my adviser is female. I'm also the tallest. My adviser and I do no look alike. I do tend to find myself thinking like her though, and coming up with questions that I know she would have thought about as well.... which is sometimes strange.

Thomas Joseph said...

I imagine some PI's like the idea of having mini-me's running all around the place. As far as I am concerned, one of me is all the world can handle ... or that I'm willing to force upon it.

acmegirl said...

I know I'm a late comer to this, but I had to say something, since nobody picked up on PhysioProf's fantastic observation - as a female scientist with two kids and a husband with a career of his own, I can't really go along on a lot of extracurricular excursions just to fit in or get enough face time with my PI. I think it's really unfair for a PI to expect that in addition to spending your full workdays in the lab you should also spend your "free time" pursuing whatever hobby s/he enjoys. Maybe it's some kind of ego trip to own your trainees, or something, but I'd run away screaming from those kinds of groups.

As I see it, a hobby is supposed to be separate from your work, and if it isn't, then that's not a hobby. I can't understand people who lead such narrow lives that they can't even come up with their own leisure activities. I have plenty of leisure activities that I like to do with my own family, and it would seriously piss me off if I heard that some members of the lab were going kite boarding with my PI a couple times a month while I have to stick to the official channels of communication.

It's a funny thing, but my Thing 2 is about the same age as my PI's kid, and I don't think it would go down all that well if we started having regular playdates. Not that we'd really get to talk about science, but it would create a type of interaction that is more peer-like. And a PI is your boss, not your peer.

But don't get me wrong, I do think it's nice to foster a sense of cameraderie in a group. We have a BBQ every summer, and go out for lunch or dinner to celebrate any special occasion. Family and significant others are always invited to dinners and BBQ, and lunches are during work anyway, so that's cool. Anything else is just another form of the "Boys Club" or your PI not understanding boundaries.

Monado, FCD said...

Hanging out together might seem fine when things are going well, but if you have a serious scientific disagreement, where do you go to get away from each other?

Part of the "like hires like" might be an unconscious feeling that someone who dresses like you must be a sensible (fun, exciting, reliable) person with great taste.

And I think there's a lot of unconscious mimicry as well as some conscious favor-currying or strategizing or fitting in.