Monday, October 08, 2007

Professional Friends

Previously I have written about some of the things I enjoy about being mid-career (and middle aged), including: seeing my former students progress in their own careers but not being so deep into my own that I don’t still encounter my own advisors and teachers, and feeling like I’ve learned a lot but still have a lot more fun things to do with my research and teaching.

Something else that I really like is having colleagues with whom I have worked for a long time, including friends from grad school. Memories of my student years have largely receded into the mist, but the support and friendship of my fellow grad students is important to me to this day. This support network was essential to my sanity in graduate school – I sometimes wonder if I would even have gotten my degree if I hadn’t had this to counterbalance the negative weirdness of the faculty (see previous post on Anti-Mentors). Today, some of these fellow students are my colleagues.

When you’ve worked with a colleague for a decade or more, you have a long history of evolving ideas, you have lots of shared stories, and you have a working relationship that in many ways resembles a friendship. This can be a very fun and satisfying part of professional life.

Recently at a social function, one of my long-term colleagues was telling a group of other people about how I collaborate with friends from grad school and about some of my other long-term collaborations. He was saying it as if it is something unusual. I was surprised that he even thought this worth mentioning to a group of random people, but perhaps it is (and hence I am writing this short comment on it).


Anonymous said...

But isn't that what the "old boys" network is all about? Working with friends and making friends of people who do things that you like and overlap with you? Maybe your collegue doesn't realize he does it, too.

Female Science Professor said...

That's an interesting comment. However, I don't agree that the people I collaborate with 'overlap' with me. I should have said that these collaborations do not represent the total of my collaborations -- they are a small part, but they have pushed my research in interesting directions. For example, in one recent project, I wouldn't even have done the project if it weren't for one of these old-friend collaborations -- the topic was too far out of my usual expertise.

Even so, it's interesting to think about what the difference is between an old boy style network and something more positive.

Anonymous said...

didn't you feel pressured at the beginning of your career to *avoid* collaborating with grad school colleagues (either mentors or fello grad students) so that you could establish yourself as an independent researcher?

I've had that mentioned to me explicitely at least twice, and I'm wondering if I'm viewing that as the prevalent attitude when it really isn't.

Or it may be that it depends on the field. I'm not in one of those fields in which papers have lots of co-authors, for example.

Global Girl said...

Perhaps another reason I'm leaning heavily toward business - at this point, probably running more away from academia than toward business - is that I don't have that support. The most positive response I've gotten from my "colleagues" is lack of inclusion with a smile that seems to be a sort of positive-minded exclusion. I work alone, because everyone is forming bonds around me, but not with me. I'm glad to hear some women have real colleagues with whom they can collaborate in the future.

Female Science Professor said...

Early in my career, I made sure to have a balance between single author papers and co-authored papers. Co-authored papers are more usual in my field, but I knew that if I didn't have some single author papers, there would always be a question as to whether the ideas were really my own. Fortunately my advisor supported my being sole author on papers that represented entirely my own work/ideas.

Drugmonkey said...

a suggestion that you are engaging in "old boys" networking seems to raise your hackles there FSP!

IMO critique of the "old boys club" is not always to do with scientific overlap. this may be a frequent symptom but it does not define the problem. it is rather a matter of in-group versus out-group. like it or not you have created an in-group. the only question is, to what extent does your in-group wield the power to prop up the efforts of less-deserving in-group members at the expense of more-deserving out-group member. this is my distillation of the "old boys" critique.

the source and character of the in-grouping is not that relevant. why am i reminded of Bokonon at this point?

Female Science Professor said...

Sorry to disappoint you, but my hackles are unraised. I think it is a very interesting point (as I wrote in my comment), and I have been thinking about it a lot lately. What is old boy network and what is not? Is inviting your former student to give an invited talk (as one of my colleagues just did, thereby annoying other people who could have been invited) supporting an early career scientist or is it just old boys doing the usual old boy thing? And so on.

Drugmonkey said...

again I think the in-group/out-group terminology generalizes better than the (loaded) "old boys/girls" thing.

you are quite correct in that good mentoring of your trainees and support of your friends and colleagues can be indistinguishable from in-group nepotism.

I would suggest that progess could be made by considering the degree of power that is held by the in-group and the scope of application. it will not be a bright line distinction of course.

in your example, invitations for (i'm assuming) a local seminar- no big deal. moving to an externally proposed seminar slate for a conference- a little bit higher standard for anti-old-boyism but still an allowance because you are proposing a slate for the program committee to approve/disapprove (what they should decide may be a different matter). a seminar slate organized at the *behest* of a scientific society, well this would be a sharp uptick in the requirement for fairness in my view.

now suppose we get down to a situation in which one needs to pit a desire to help one's prior trainee against a need for, say, gender diversity. I'm probably going to opt for the specific over the general every time. fair? not at all. typical? of course. Is the solution to rail at the situation? or to use solutions (e.g., competition of biases) that acknowledge human behavior and attempt to work around it?

Anonymous said...

But FSP is not describing how she invited her "Professional Friends" to give invited talks in prestigious conference, or worked to have them awards or job or whatever.

She is describing how she keeps choosing to *work* with them, or just interact with them.

Comparing it to an old boys' network makes no sense and looks to be an attempt to shift the blame.

Ms.PhD said...

You're lucky to have multiple friends from grad school who stayed in academia. My advisors are like that, but I'm afraid it's less common now. The majority of people I went to school with went to industry or other careers outside of research. A lot of the women are raising children and not working outside the home at all.

I'm actually kind of bitter about that, which is why globalgirl's comment makes me sad. It's really demoralizing watching the women all leave and losing my support system that way. It's especially bad when I try to call on them for sympathy and they tell me I'm crazy to stay in academia and that I should quit like they did.

I agree that the in-group vs. out-group thing is separate. And that inviting talks based on who you already know is just lame and promotes a complete lack of scientific diversity. But irrelevant to the original post.