Imagine that there is one research group that doesn’t like or respect another. It is perhaps not so difficult to imagine such a scenario. In such cases, the people involved typically deal with the conflict in ways that may include aggressive tactics, passive-aggressive behavior, or simply benign dislike. Some of these interactions stay entirely professional and the disagreeing factions confine their battlefields to the literature and conference presentations. In other cases the disagreements become more personal.
Other aspects of inter-research group conflicts include whether the conflicts involve only the principal investigators or whether other members of research groups are involved, and whether the conflicts are mutual or largely one-sided (e.g. one group feels hostile towards another, but the group that is the target of the ire doesn’t participate in the conflict or even really care).
I recall an incident in which I met a particular person for the first time at a conference. We had both been graduate students at about the same time at different universities with advisers working in a broadly similar field, and had become professors at semi-neighboring institutions. This other person noted that it was unlikely that we would get along very well because my adviser had been his/her adviser’s “nemesis”. I thought that was a strange remark; I had no particular feelings of hostility towards anyone in that group, and I don’t think my adviser did either, even if he didn’t agree with some of their research methods and interpretations. I would call that an example of a one-sided conflict.
Now consider a different situation – one in which a faculty member in Research Group 1 tells a recent PhD graduate of Research Group 2 that the student made a huge mistake in choice of adviser and had probably ruined his/her career by working with this person. This is an example of a conflict that broadens to include various members of a research group, not just the principal investigators.
Is there any circumstance in which this is an OK thing to say? I am trying to imagine someone who may believe that they have sincere motives and deep concern for the newly minted PhD. Even in that case, though, what good does it do to say such a thing after the student has already received the PhD?
And in a specific case of which I am thinking, both recent PhD student and advisers had a mutually compatible working relationship, and the student’s research was very successful and led to interesting job opportunities. In that case, the person making the critical comment about the student’s choice of PhD advisers is perhaps best interpreted as spiteful, as the student’s career has clearly not been “ruined”.
Some colleagues and I were discussing this incident the other day. Responses among my colleagues included:
1. The (former) student can take of his/herself in this situation and doesn’t need any help from the adviser (except sympathy at having to deal with the spiteful person).
2. The former adviser should step in and directly confront the spiteful person, perhaps issuing a threat of some sort, or should take revenge via reviews.
3. The former adviser should say nothing but should refuse to review the spiteful person’s work.
I was a proponent of the first response; I think the student is confident enough to deal with the situation, however unpleasant, and that it would be a mistake to escalate the conflict, as in the second option. The third option should be used if those involved really felt that they could not be objective.
Of course the best thing would be if everyone could find a way to be as professional as possible about their intellectual hostilities.
10 years ago