Friday, July 18, 2008

What an Insult

A few weeks ago I pondered ways in which professors try to insult each other. Today I feel like adding to the list.

A particular comment that, when phrased in certain ways, can be like a knife to one's academic heart, concerns the extent to which other people have heard of you and are aware of your work; that is, have read your publications.

A particularly direct and impolite way of expressing this sentiment is to say simply: "I've never heard of you."

I used to hear this when I was a young professor, and I do not believe that this phrase is typically recommended for use upon meeting someone for the first time. I suppose it was meant to signal that I must not publish much or that I published only obscure and boring papers that were not worth reading. Even a professor who is not seeking awesome fame as a scientist at least aspires to have some of her/his papers read, so this statement could be quite devastating.

One specific example that I recall was when I had just arrived at my university as a new Assistant Professor. When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much."

At that point in my career I had published at least 20 papers, including ones in all the major journals of his (and my) research specialty and also a few in a high-impact general journal that is rather widely read by researchers in and beyond our specific field. Some of the topics of my papers were highly relevant to his research.

I was confident in my publication record, so I said "You must never read any scientific journals. I find that surprising for a senior graduate student. Is that typical of this department?"

In that situation, the student was trying to insult me. Saying "You must not publish very much" to an academic is not just bad manners, it is an insult. In other situations, though, polite variants on "I've never heard of you" can be a way to start a conversation about someone's work, or can be an expression of unfortunate ignorance.

When I was a graduate student, a fellow grad student once asked a Very Famous Scientist "And what do you work on?" when introduced to him at a small meeting. I was amazed that he had not heard of the Very Famous Scientist, whose work (in a field similar to that of the grad student's) over many decades was widely cited. The Very Famous Scientist was extraordinarily polite and answered the student with a list of the main topics he had worked on in recent years. I was impressed by the grace with which he answered the student's question.

It is important for those of us who are old enough to hope that at least some people have heard of us to remember that it can take many years to get to know the names and topics of researchers in a particular discipline. Therefore, if confronted with a polite variation of I've-never-heard-of-you, especially from a student, this should not be taken as an insult.

Even so, I recall another time when I saw from a distance a Very Famous Scientist talking to one of my students at the student's poster at a conference. This scientist was the person in the world whose research was most closely related to my student's work, so I assumed that they were having an interesting discussion. By the time I got there, the VFS had already moved on to other posters, so I asked my student about their discussion. My student said "That guy? Who was he anyway?".

Well.. if my student had remembered the 57 papers by this scientist that we had read and discussed in recent years, or if he had picked up on conversational cues that this person knew a fair amount about the poster topic, he might have had a different conversation with "that guy". As it was, because he didn't recognize the man's name (which is rather distinctive), my student didn't take advantage of the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with an interesting person with relevant expertise. If I'd gotten there sooner, I could have helped my student connect the dots, but it was entirely reasonable to expect that he would recognize this man's name on his own.

We read the literature so that we learn new things and find out what is going on in Science World, but we also read so that we get to know the people in the field and perhaps have interesting conversations with them at conferences or other scientific gatherings. For those who are not good at remembering names and faces, perhaps it would be advisable to develop a strategy for making connections between research and researchers without resorting to the potentially treacherous "What do you work on?" types of questions.

In the case of the rude grad student who insulted me when I first arrived at my university, imagine my surprise when he contacted me a year or so later to say he had seen my ad for a postdoc and was wondering if he could apply. It was tempting to write back and ask "Who are you?", but I resisted, though I did not hire him; he had only one publication, and it was boring.


The_Myth said...

When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much."

At that point in my career I had published at least 20 papers, including ones in all the major journals of his (and my) research specialty and also a few in a high-impact general journal that is rather widely read by researchers in and beyond our specific field. Some of the topics of my papers were highly relevant to his research.

I was confident in my publication record, so I said "You must never read any scientific journals. I find that surprising for a senior graduate student. Is that typical of this department?"

Sheer brilliance! Well done! Brava! Bravissima!

I wish I had that presence of mind when someone insulted me!

Do you think this might be a generational thing? I find that many "younger" grad students (like under maybe born after 1985) often have a blase' attitude about the scholars they read and their importance in the discipline, etc. Some of my undergrad students have expressed disdain that I don't treat them as peers [as if!] and I wonder if this is just another signal of changing mores.

AstroYoga said...

Since working for a federal funding agency where I run into many famous scientists serving on various high level advisory committees and such, I have found an interesting twist to this behavior.

Often when people think they are quite well known, they don't bother to introduce themselves. They assume that everyone must know who they are! Once I hear their name, I almost always know them, but the name is always told to me by someone who has met them in person before. I take it as a que that when I meet a scientist at a meeting who doesn't feel the need to introduce themselves while conversing with me about science, they must think they are very important.

I find it refreshing when I have met famous scientists who do bother to introduce themselves to new people.

In general, I think everyone should have to wear a name tag in professional setting all the time - just to make my life easier.

Anonymous said...

Your student quite probably knew the name of the very famous person but not what he looked like. I get this all the time. After all, many scientific interaction situations are not typically preceded with a traditional introduction...

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I've experienced the flip-side. In my first position here in Scandinavia, I was told that Prof. International Expert In My Field was coming from the US to our university for a guest seminar, and was asked if I was excited. I had never heard of this man in my life, even though he is supposedly an expert in my field and, worse yet, has been a professor at the university from which I got my Ph.D. since before I started grad school (!!!). I feigned excitement mostly out of embarrassment for not knowing who this guy was.

I then immediately went to my office, shut the door, and looked up his webpage and read his CV. No WONDER I had never heard of him... he doesn't publish!!! He floats around the world giving invited lectures at universities and small conferences. I have NO idea how he got himself into this faculty position, since he doesn't seem to do research and doesn't teach anything at my alma mater. I guess that's why I could spend 5 years there and never run into him.

Anonymous said...

This post made me smile. As a PhD student I often have the problem that, even though I think I know the most relevant people in my research (by name) and even though sometimes I attend to a conference/seminar and I know one of those Very Famous Persons is there in the room, I have never seen their faces so I have no way to know which of them is the VFP! Usually, these VFPs assume that everybody knows them already so they don't even wear their name tags, that makes it a bit difficult for students sometimes...

Anonymous said...

I picked up a trick which allows both parties to save face. The junior person should ask the senior person, "So, what are you working on these days?" This doesn't betray much ignorance on the part of the junior person (yet) and it protects the senior person's illusion that his/her work is widely known. Of course the rest of the conversation must still be managed skillfully.

Anonymous said...

It's not only a matter of a new assistant prof at Big Research U, I've been told multiple times that I won't get tenure without letters from Famous People in my field from peer institutions who know who I am. So if one of them is asked in five years what they think of me, and the answer is, "Who?", it's not just being rude; it's the kiss of death.

Anonymous said...

In some cases, new students might have difficulty because they don't know the convention that (in my field) only the last name on the author line matters.

Anonymous said...

I accidentally insulted one of my (rather influential and highly respected) senior colleagues this way a few weeks ago. He pointed out after a talk I gave that one of his papers addressed a similar topic to a paper I had quoted, and that his paper pre-dated the one I quoted.

In my rather jet-lagged state (I had just flown to Europe) I said "I wasn't aware of that," meaning "I didn't know your paper came first, thanks, I'll be sure to correct this in the future." He apparently heard "I didn't know you did this work since I never read anything you write; I'm far too arrogant to pay attention to anything but my own stuff."

Needless to say, a good time was not had by me: he is rather touchy, and proceeded to shred me in front of the audience. I wanted to hide under my chair the rest of the day.

(Reasonably happy ending: After a decent night of sleep, I apologized to him the next day, explained that I was in fact very aware of his work [and had in fact highlighted other aspects of it in other venues], and was going to correct all future citations to note the precedence of his publication on this issue. He was extremely gracious and apologized for flying off the handle.)

AsstFemaleProf said...

Part of the problem is that students, especially younger students) often only pay attention to the first author on the paper - in part because papers are often cited as J. Smith, et al and in part due to laziness. I'm not justifying this behavior (see second reason given), I'm just stating this as a fact.

As students progress, they begin to pay more attention to the group that is generating the papers, and less to the first author.

For this reason, I usually give students the benefit of the doubt - especially students whose research may only be peripherally related to my own.

However, the specific example cited here would not have been ignored as it was rather blatant. So, like the_myth, I have to congratulate you for your presence of mind. I also either never have the courage or am too stunned to say anything.

Now, fellow professors fall into another category all together. When they say something like this, it is always intended as an insult, direct or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the problem here is that when some people read the research papers, we don't really concentrate on reading the list of authors. Do scientists expect their names to be recognized as if they are celebrities? Yes, people will probably recognize some of the names if they keep popping up in readings, but scientists should present their work without presenting themselves as well. The Scientific community is so unnecessarily personal.

Professor in Training said...

I was in the audience for a lecture at a large international meeting a few years ago given by a VERY big, well-respected name in my field. During the Q&A, the forefather/demi-god of our field, who is now a very old gentleman, shuffled up to the microphone wearing a moth-eaten cardigan sweater and fetching socks and sandals combination, tapped on the microphone a few times, leaned in and in a very clear but somewhat shaky voice said "you're wrong" and then returned to his seat. The speaker was dumbfounded and it took all of my strength not to giggle out loud amidst the collective gasp that resonated throughout the room. Priceless.

Anonymous said...

"In general, I think everyone should have to wear a name tag in professional setting all the time - just to make my life easier."

and, ideally, it should be annotated. Maybe a few cites? or a figure from a famous paper? :-)

There's a senior guy in a field I'm familiar with who is known for attending major meetings, and asking a question at every single presentation, while saying "I did this years ago." Everyone now preps for him.

Ms.PhD said...

I agree with the_myth, bravo! I have to remember that one!

I usually snap back with something about Quality vs. Quantity and more or less what you said, that nobody reads anymore.

Within my field, I'm astonished when anyone knows who I am. It's gratifying to note that more people do seem to know now.

Outside my field, I don't mind being a nobody, and I'm always amused when postdocs and grad students assume I am a) younger than they are and b) an idiot. Then it can be fun, when necessary, to zing them a little. Just because I can! They never see it coming.

There are advantages to not having a reputation!

Another opposite: I pay attention to first AND last authors, and I'm offended when the PIs in my field attribute novel ideas to the last author, when I know for a fact that the first author had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed to work on and publish that project.

And yet somehow the PI gets all the credit.

Sometimes it's much more important to know who had the novel idea and did all the work, than who the PI was.

My favorite variation is when we interview a candidate who wants to work on a project that was started by a former postdoc who has since moved away to start his/her own lab. I always ask them why they're applying here, when the project and expertise are elsewhere? They always look surprised, because PI never tells them they'll be competing with an alum!

Long gone are the days when a PI didn't have to be listed as Last Author to get the glory of having successful offspring!

I hate the current rockstar/overly self-centered culture we have now. Big, fragile egos. And in contrast to your stories, most of the younger students I know are MORE obsessed with the Celebrity aspect of scientists, not less. They're star struck.

Anonymous said...

I got a funny version of this last year when a Big Name Scientist came up to me at a small conference and said, "I've been trying to figure out where you came from. You just sort of suddenly appeared on the scene, when I wasn't aware of you before." Well, it's true that I had entered a new subfield, and it's cool that he was becoming aware of my work and wanted to know more about me, but isn't that a strange way to start a conversation?

chemcat said...

I was in the audience of a seminar given by Young Star in my field (now a NAS member). A person asked a question related to a particular methodology used, and the speaker cited the work of So-and-so. The person replied "well, I AM So-and-so" and proceeded to criticize the use of the work.
Most people in the audience actually knew So-and-so in person, so everybody was laughing well before things got tense...

Liberal Arts Lady said...

I once made this mistake with the convener of a session at a national conference -- I was presenting in a session only tangentially related to my main research area, and was up after the break. While waiting by the podium making small talk I asked that stupid question -- "so what are you working on?" and was immediately given the look of death.

Ok, so maybe I was just being an ignorant senior grad student, but this person wasn't a VFS and worked on stuff I wouldn't necessarily read. I thought their reaction was a little much, but I learned to rephrase my attempts at finding out what people are working on, and do some research on the people making the introductions at conferences!

Anonymous said...

At least in astronomy, the total number of publications and the author lists on each publication are exploding. This gives rise to an incredibly complex social hierarchy all of which can only be learned by word-of-mouth, by meeting people at conferences (to see who gives the invited talks), or by long experience in the field. For those of us who have trouble remembering names and who are new to the field, this makes the "I've never heard of you" blunder a frequent occurrence. On several occasions, I have met a Random-International-Scientist and only realized hours after the conversation ended that when they said "my name is Blah" that was actually spelled Belajhe whose papers I have read million times!!! I've learned to live with the embarrassment and most people are forgiving if you apologize.

However, I would like to suggest that this emphasis on the social hierarchy leads to politics and I think we should actually appreciate those people who have never heard of our work as they may bring a fresh perspective to our fields without the bias and political influence of the important people that came before them.

EliRabett said...

One day many years ago, I am going to visit a friend at a well known place where English is not the first language, and he calls me up and says, can't see you big panic, but my colleague X wants to meet you.

I drag out there and meet the guy and we communicate in his bad English and my worse X and we get to the what you doing now question. Well, this and that he says. How curious, I too am working on this and that and we did so forth. Hmm he says, just published a paper with Y on that. How curious I said, I too just published a paper with Y on that.

We sit there dumbstruck realizing that Y put us together and we are co-authors. Much merriment.

reticent said...


I am a new reader (grad student) and just want to say thanks for sharing your experiences. I am inspired by how much you love your job.

Zinjanthropus said...

I'm a very young grad student, and I've met Big Name Scientists but didn't want to appear foolish by fawning all over them. Maybe it'll be better for my career if I swallow my pride and fawn a little, but I can't shake the feeling that being a Fangirl would be just as annoying.

Doctor Pion said...

I had an amusing experience when Franz Klammer sat down at our lunch table in a mountaintop cafe - without identifying himself. (And how would you recognize a world famous gold medal winner in the Downhill on the street?) We had a great conversation that included just enough details (about his shop in town) to figure out who he was later, but without the fawning hero worship that would have resulted otherwise! He was just having a good day on the slopes.

I've seen students totally freak or go blank when meeting Truly Famous Scientist, getting less out of it than one would hope, but not identifying the Merely Famous is a problem. As others noted, there are no pictures with journal articles, so how do you put a face with a name? For that matter, if Merely Famous puts her/his name at the end of the list, a student might need to be mentored to start noticing who is (literally) behind all of the papers being read.

This is an important part of grad student training, because that person might sit on a grant review panel or be asked to write a letter concerning your application for tenure. One instance of social or scientific ignorance could stick for a long time.

Your closing comment about Clueless Grad Student was quite telling. Perhaps the fact that CGS only managed one boring paper says something about the level of engagement with the papers of yours that were being read in conjunction with doing research.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a story involving an emeritus prof - Dr. M - at my grad school. Dr. M is about 80, frail, walks with a cane, and wears frumpy cardigans. She entered her field when there were hardly any women in it, and invented some logic formulas - the M formulas - that have become very important; Dr. M is a legend in the field. Anyway, she was at a talk given by a young hotshot who was using the M formulas in a novel way. During the Q and A, Dr. M raised her hand, but the speaker ignored her and called on everyone else; he probably thought she was a bag lady who had wandered into the conference for free food. Finally, he ran out of other folks, and he had to call on her. "Yes?" he asked impatiently. Dr. M calmly said, "Your use of the M formulas shows that you misunderstand them. When I developed them, I clearly demonstrated their limitations...." As she went on, the speaker's jaw slowly dropped and his face turned crimson. His response was a stammering mess of gibberish. Oh, revenge is so sweet!

Anonymous said...

In my very first scientific conference as a young grad student, a distinguished looking gentleman came up to my poster and chatted with me about it. He asked a question about my interpretation and suggested an alternative. I responded, "I am confident in my interpretation because it is consistent with findings previously published by First Author X." After he left, a postdoc in my lab came to me very impressed and said, "Wow, way to quote Famous Scientist's own work back to him." I had no clue that I was talking to Famous Scientist (last author on the paper I quoted) and had argued with him citing his own work.

Pagan Topologist said...

This whole first author-last author thing is weird to me. In my field, authors are always listed alphabetically.

I was shy around famous mathematicians early in my career, but I never had any problem. I just admit to everyone that I am not good with names and ask repeatedly for people to repeat their names. Last month I had to ask for the name of someone I have known for 20 years.

EcoGeoFemme said...

The first few conferences I went to (as an undergrad and then between undergrad and grad school, so before I got hot and heavy into reading the literature) were so much fun because I didn't know who the famous people were, so I couldn't be intimidated by them. I get a little less fearless with each conference.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean when you say "what an insult" when someone says that they never heard of another professor. When I told a professor in my department that I accepted a postdoc position with Prof. X, he replied that he never heard of Prof. X.

I never understood this prof. During the same conversation, he made fun of a female prof. He said she was at a "second rank institution doing third rank research". Funny, she has NSF funding and he does not. What a miserable guy this professor is. Why doesn't he do interesting, creative research that could earn him some research grants.(Oh, am I insulting him?! Oops! Don't want to be trollish.) Better yet, why doesn't he train some female grad students to improve diversity in his own lab? Maybe having female grad students and collaborating with female profs in our department would help him earn some grants.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

HAHAHA! That last paragraph is priceless.

Steve Rogers said...

During our journal clubs, I always preamble the presentation with a history of the work of the corresponding author to provide context to my students and postdocs. Their pedigree,major contributions, and something about their personality when it is someone I know personally. Personalities are a big part of science and I think it important to teach this human component right from the start.

m said...

When i started as a grad student, it was always intimidating how big people use to ask questions looking at my poster in the conferences (biological sciences). This is becoz they make conscious efforts to turn their name tags so that the names are not visible. I always try to answer their questions as best as possible and end with a tag " do you also work in the same field?" which mostly would be answered with a shrug which will dismiss me as "u young useless grad student!". And without name tags there is no way one could recognize that one who is standing before is the one whose publications that i have read. Later on, I always did my homework before attending conferences-going thru the program schedule for lists of big people and trying find the faces of them in the net. In that way I try to avoid the embarassment of saying possibly-perceived-as-rude-things to the big names. But things changed when I gave my first international talk, then the big people came to me and were as friendly as they can be to a fellow scientist (even though i was still a grad student-may be the senior grad student!).

Guess, in my department we had been primed quite a lot by my proffessor who really drilled us at asking scientific questions in a scientific and proffessional way...So for me it was always the attitude of the senior successful scientists who look down at the young graduate students. I have agree i have also met quite some nice people who are very constructive in their discussion but in real strict sense they don't belong to that big very famous scientist group.

Anonymous said...

When I was a grad student, I was once at a conference and met someone who I vaguely recognized, who obviously knew me. He wasn't wearing a name tag. I was frantically trying to remember where I knew him from. After about 20 minutes I figured it out: He was famous Prof. W, who I had last met about 10 months prior when I interviewed with him for a postdoctoral position -- and I got the position. In fact, my PhD had taken a bit longer to finish up, and I was about to start working with him in another month. Fortunately he didn't ask me what I was working on, because I would have told him "I'm about to start a postdoc with Prof. W!"

I finally told Prof. W this story 3 years later, he appreciated it.

Anonymous said...

"A particularly direct and impolite way of expressing this sentiment is to say simply: 'I've never heard of you."

Correct response: Look him in the eye and say, "You will."

chall said...

ahh... I remember my starstruck face at my first Big conference and standing next to a poster in the field (at the time my PhDfield with three groups in the world and one old school Prof with his name on ALL the important papers) when an older man peered at my name tag and said "ah, you are chall. I saw your abstract for your poster. I am looking forward seeing it tomorrow".

I just stood there trying not to faint or say something completely off mark. Not only had he looked my poster up (not too strange since we were competitors maybe) but he remembered my name when he saw my name tag! And since i was at the conference alone from my lab I ended up talking science to this Prof as well as the other two profs in the field... whereas I am quite certain that that would never had happened if anyone else from the lab was present.

And no, I wouldn't have known what he looked like but name tags are a blessing!

Samia said...

One of my teachers says that calling someone "competent" is a bit of an insult. I wonder how others feel about that?

Anonymous said...

Samia, hi; I would regard being told I'm competent as damning with faint praise. I've also seen this used as a slam against scholars from cultural minority backgrounds (I am not one of this group by the way) -- as if it's noteworthy they're competent!

Odyssey said...

"Competent" is a tough one. It really depends on the context. It can be translated as "Oh yeah, I've heard of you. Don't think much of your work though." On the other hand, people can really mean it as a compliment. I try not to use because it is too ambiguous.

Irradiatus said...

I fully understand the necessity of being fully acquainted with at minimum the names of the prominent researchers in one's field of expertise. It is a practical necessity.

That being said, I find that many scientists expect a certain amount of glory and fame from their own accomplishments that I don't consider scientifically virtuous. It is of course human nature to desire recognition for your accomplishments; however, I think it sometimes causes people to forget the prime motivation for doing science.

I may just be saying this because back in graduate school I had a professor who was fixated on glory, scientific fame, gossip, etc. And he would ridicule 1st year grad students for not knowing esoteric researcher's names. As if we had read the entire history of the field before becoming a rotating student.

Yes...I think I'm just bitter.

And I'm not trying to belittle the argument at all. Just my two cents.

Old Biddy said...

I'm in industry now so I don't see as much of this anymore, but I know exactly what you mean. Nowadays it tends to manifest itself as not-very-well-hidden slights on industry.
I wonder how general the trend of grad students not really knowing who's working in fields close to theirs. About a year ago, in a completely random nonscientific setting, I met a grad student in the same area of chemistry as I. He was a 4th year student in the lab of big shot professor at big shot west coast university. He asked where I went to grad school and who I worked for. I told him, and he said he'd never heard of my advisor. I said, "That's odd - he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago." That ended the conversation pretty quickly!