Monday, August 20, 2012

Pecking Order

While perusing some books and articles on academic administration, I tried to set myself a little challenge that would help me keep reading and not either fall into a boredom-induced stupor or fling the book/e-reader across the room because the author makes so many unjustified and insulting assumptions. And that challenge was to see how far in the book/article it took for me to find something, anything, that was interesting or useful to me.

For some of these books/articles, the challenge is never met and I wonder if this is more a reflection of my administrative inadequacies than the apparent boringness of the reading material, but in one book (by C.K. Gunsalus), I found one thing that perked me up for few moments, a few chapters into the book. And that was a statement that every member of the faculty and all of the "secretaries", as well as most of the grad students and other staff members in academic departments knows exactly what the "pecking order" of faculty is; that is, a hierarchy of sorts, based on I-don't-know-what, but indicated by various "intangible" things.

The intangible items that are listed are a bit bizarre and (along with the mention of "secretaries") made me check when the book was published: the Dean's sherry party? getting your own name on letterhead? etc. But let's ignore that and focus on the "pecking order" concept.

Without defining it or its basis any more than I already have(n't):

Do you think your department has a "pecking order" (and are you faculty, staff, or a student)? If so, what do you think the basis for it is? Research awesomeness? Personality? Other?

And what are the consequences? (salary, office/lab space, invitations to sherry parties)

Is this a bad thing, a neutral thing, a good thing?

I suspect that your comments will make for more interesting reading than any of these guides to academic administrating.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Our department certainly has a pecking order. I would say its based on personality, research awesomeness and the ability to bring in funding $$. Generally people are very polite though, so I don't think its that noticeable to students. But it is very apparent at faculty meetings for example.

I'm untenured faculty.

EliRabett said...

Gunsalus gets a lot of things right. For example she nails the victim bullies

Tam said...

I'm a grad student about to start my third year in our program. It's not clear to me what the pecking order in our department is. There is one research group that seems to outshine the others in terms of grants, ability to recruit grad students (and pay them more), etc., so I suppose that group is kind of riding high.

But about the rest of them? No idea. So-and-so has no research productivity but seems tight with the old chair: does that make him sort of high in the order, or is he viewed as useless by the other faculty? Not a clue.

Anonymous said...

My experience has been that there are very strong and mostly rigid pecking orders in academia. The highest levels are made up of the 'good old boy' group. Many of these people do not have significant research grants, or other reasons for them to be at the top, other than they 'fit' well with those who do have administrative power. As such, they are rewarded. The rewards include better teaching assignments or less teaching, better space, invites to special events, power to be heard during meetings, etc. The next level in the pecking order are those male research superstars. Female superstars are given kudos only when that suits the needs of the highest pecking order - such as when potential donors are given a tour, then a token woman is needed to give a good impression. Female superstars do have more access to resources they need as compared to other male and female faculty who do not bring in as much money, but they have to remind administrators how choosing not to support them will affect the bottom line. In my experience, female superstars are still lower on the pecking order than men who have similar or significantly less research success who can be offered resources without even asking. Graduate students are largely well aware of the pecking order because students of those faculty in the highest group see the space, facilities etc. that they have access to whereas students who work under the lowest faculty do not.

I am a female, 'superstar', full professor.

mOOm said...

I think our pecking order follows the formal ranks very closely. The director and deputy director have the highest rank and the other full professors next and so forth. Not sure how to compare the more senior admin and faculty. Probably comparable to associate professor in the order.

Anonymous said...

There is a pecking order and it is closely correlated with the professor's wider 'status' in the discipline. Higher status people have higher salaries, are editors of more elite journals, are on the committees for the more prestigious prizes, get invited to speak at fancier conferences and for fancier lecture series, etc.

Within the department they get better access to perks such as staff, office space, different types of funds, more influence over hiring decisions, etc. They also tend to bring in more grant money and publish in better journals.

Is the research better? It tends to be, but these people also get disproportionate credit for discoveries they may only be tangentially connected to. The rich get richer....

Of course all of these features can be more or less pronounced in an individual professor, and the sum total makes the pecking order what it is (plus presumably some internal department stuff that I'm not senior enough to know about yet) but the different metrics all track one another quite closely.

I'm a math postdoc.

Anonymous said...

I think time-at-institution in combination with the factors, especially productivity, listed by the first commenter is a major factor in pecking order.

Anonymous said...

The faculty member who has a personal assistant who she asks to do her personal taxes or arrange for her skis to be waiting for her when she arrives at a mountain conference is pretty clearly at the top of the pecking order. These and other status indicators seem like abuses of department resources to me....

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Our department has a pecking order. It is based on a lot of different things with research funding being high on the list (though not exclusively, since I'm at the bottom of the research funding pile but not quite low man on the totem pole).

External fame is very high (an assistant prof who is world-famous is higher status than a full prof who is known only in his own field). Fame probably trumps funding even.

The perks of status are not much here—you get more lab space (if you have the funding) and more students want to work with you (if you have the funding) and the dean listens to you more often (if you have more funding).

logisticalmiasma said...

There is a pecking order and it is based on seniority and personality. Research awesomeness enters in at some vague level, but I feel that the seniority is more important.

As for the consequences, since I'm at a public institution, I can see what all the profs (and their secretaries) earn, and so I would say that being higher up on the order leads to better salary. Office/lab space is universally abysmal here, so no effect there.

I would have to say that it is a natural thing. Every group ends up in a hierarchy, so it is only natural that this would also happen in academia.

I am a 2nd year graduate student for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Our faculty have a pecking order based on nationalities and gender, alas. Outside of faculty, I've been places where the order was: staff, faculty, grads, undergrads. Where I am now it is: faculty, staff, students

Anonymous said...

Our department definitely has a faculty pecking order. The staff not only know it, they help define it at some level. Pecking order is based on personality as well as research awesomeness (and $$). Those at the highest end are those that are awesome but don't tell everyone about it. The better a person can lead or influence a group of others (and keep them happy while doing so), the higher their rank. Since the staff can facilitate that kind of leadership and those who are nice and helpful to the staff get helped more quickly, the staff can influence the ultimate pecking order though it's a bit of a catch 22.

agradstudent said...

Yes, my department has a pecking order. I am a grad student (one that has been in said department for a while).

To the extent that I can discern, the pecking order is determined by a combination of seniority, personality, in particular persuasion skills, willingness to take on administrative roles and/or act enthusiastic about the goals of the department, willingness to meddle in others' business, some undertones of research awesomeness (as determined by who I'm not quite sure), and possibly (physical) stature. We recently had a "secretary" leave who had more power than many faculty.

The consequences I notice are those affecting grad students. If your advisor is low on the pecking order, it can contribute to your failing an exam. If a faculty member doesn't like you, they might cause obnoxious and unfair administrative decisions to negatively affect you, but they can be remedied if someone higher on the pecking order is on your side. If you want to change advisors, you can only change from where you are to someone higher on the pecking order.

I find the effects on students to generally be very bad things. My awareness of it has allowed me to get the higher-ups in the order on my side, and luckily there are plenty of those that are of good character. But not all students are so perceptive/lucky/likeable. Students shouldn't need political savvy to get an education.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate (PhD) student and I definitely feel my department has a pecking order. At the top, more sciency full professor funded types. Down below, less sciency, but still full professor types with some funding. Next, lecturers. I think they're considered about on par with the "secretaries" (no we don't call them secretaries...) Then the grad students. To outline just where we sit I offer this quote regarding TA/RA funding from one of the top prestigious funded professor types: "We could cut their funding in half, and they should thank us for it!" I think that's fairly illustrative...especially given the current rate puts us well below the poverty level.

Morgan Price said...

I'm a research scientist at a national lab and have the impression that there is a pecking order that affects competition for internal funds and promotions, but I have little idea what it is.

dolce vita said...

As an UG student and then a MS student in my former lab, I learned there was certainly a very rigid pecking order. I ended up on the 'right side', as my adviser was the head of the department and director of the center (etc), so it meant that me saying, "I'm XXX's student" resulted in me getting forms and bureaucracy taken care of a lot faster/easier. It's not right, but you can bet I'll be watching out for it when I start my PhD work.

Anonymous said...

I believe there are multiple hierarchies depending on context and point of view. For grad students, their advisor is at the top, while certain senior administrators of the university may be considered irrelevant. Social hierarchies can be completely separate - some people just know how to throw a party.

Anonymous said...

Any group of humans will have a hierarchy, however subtle.

Female Science Professor said...

True, and that is why the question was more about perception. How aware are faculty/grads/staff of the pecking order in their department, and what does it all mean...?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... what does it all mean? Faculty here are very aware of the faculty pecking order (as are the higher ups, for the most part). This results in tangible things like space but also less tangible things like the Dean really listening to you when you complain. I would also say that some individuals low in hierarchy treat those higher with a degree of disdain and often try to undermine their success in very subtle ways (e.g. snarkiness). I don't think most students are aware of the hierarchy until very late in their degree programs, if at all. The staff however, know it well and definitely move more quickly tohelp those higher up in the list. Of course, personality plays a large role in determining the hierarchy so the staff could just be working harder for those that are nice to them (since niceness helps move you up the list).

Alex said...

Social hierarchies can be completely separate - some people just know how to throw a party.

My experience is that after-hours friendships and socializingI between faculty often (but obviously not always) have profound effects on department politics.

Anonymous said...

@Alex:
In my department the "ruling clique" are all members of the same religious denomination. So yeah, they certainly drink (KoolAid) together.

You'd hope this wouldn't make a difference about who had whose back, but unfortunately I see proof to the contrary.

Katie said...

Unfortunately, peking orders exist everywhere. From the homeless group on the corner to the leaders of nations. There is something fundamentally wrong with society.

Unknown said...

I would say that first personality, and research productivity closely following, are two main factors defining pecking order. Our head listens more to those on top.
Otherwise, hierarchy is not that noticeable. Common duties are distributed quite fairly. We don't have some people "sponsored" from common sources, while others left to struggle. General rules for getting good things of the world are "do it yourself", "get what you can and keep it" but also "be nice and share". Students are never denied what they need, regardless of who their adviser is.
I believe that undergrads usually don't know, and grads have vaguely correct idea about our pecking order.
For what it's worth, I am a PhD student.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to see that in some places, research 'awesomeness,' productivity, ability to attract students, and other factors that correlate to our jobs are what determines the pecking order. Sadly, I am not in such a department. Age, gender, race, willingness to assert one's will over and over again, and yes, stature, are the most important factors that determine the pecking order among our faculty -- and this order is important because it shapes all decision-making.