Monday, September 28, 2009


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.


Sabine Hossenfelder said...

I've heard my share of similarly nonsensical remarks. I think there's just people who cope with the obvious irrelevance of their existence by making up dramas and enmities. Eg, I've been told several times to stay away from that person or from this person because he's a bad guy or she's nuts, or he has a bad reputation or she is know to be "a little difficult, you know." In either case it turned out that on my scale of matters all of these people were perfectly normal.

The other issue is that science seems to be populated by a large fraction of people who aren't able to disentangle personal from professional matters. If you criticize their work, it's not about their work, it's a personal insult. Consequently, you're now no longer a colleague, you're an enemy. For me the matter is done if I've told them what I think the problem is with their work, but I am reasonably sure I have accumulated several of such "one-sided" conflicts over the years.

MomPhDstudent said...

Though I havent exactly gone thro scenarios as stated here.. I have something to share too.
I went around meeting some prospective advisors as a prospective PhD student.
One of them actually was an informal meeting. She was a friend of somebody from my Master's University. Once she got to know with whom I was intending to work with, (her ex-superior/boss).. she was all against it. I should say that since I did not know both of them all that well, I didn't know what to make of it. I still harbour misgivings about this prospective advisor and that has made me defer the admission offer from her university and look for other options.
But somehow I never felt that personal grievances would take over professional conduct of university professors. I realize I have thinking of ideal case scenarios. Your post is a revelation to me.

John Vidale said...

To me there are two issues, first whether the claim to have made an unwise decision is true, and second what to do about the insult to the advisor.

If the claim comes as a surprise to the recent graduate, he/she should look into it - knowing the background sounds potentially critical in future dealings with the scientists in both research groups.

Revenge of any sort is almost always unwise. We scientists live by our reputations of being objective, and have better ways to spend time than fostering feuds.

If the recent graduate is up to it, and the claim turns out to be ungrounded, it would be best in the long run to gently tell the claimant to cool it.

Pagan Topologist said...

This kind of thing is all to common, and not just at the level you are talking about here. I have seen very weak Associate Professors, who probably should not have been promoted to start with, attack Assistant Professors far stronger than the attacker and a year or so behind them in the tenure process on similar grounds during tenure discussions. I have come to regard it as something weak researchers do. I have rarely, if ever, encountered such behaviour by really strong outstanding researchers.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Many academics are bitter ego-impaired blowhards. The sooner young academics learn this, and learn to ignore such individuals, the better off they'll be.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I "ruined" my career before I even got getting my Bachelor's degree from top-ranked primarily undergrad institution with a strong science program. Why was it ruinous? Well, because the profs had to focus primarily on teaching with research as a second priority. Not only that, but not having any grad students or post-docs, the profs had to "make do" with undergrad research assistants. My UG advisor further "ruined" my career by taking a sabbatical during my last semester there, leaving me to run the lab and supervise the younger UGs while finishing my project all on my own. Somehow I overcame all this "ruinous" independent research experience to land a spot in a top-tier grad program, and in a super-duper famous PI's lab. Not quite sure how all those "ruinous" choices are going to impact my next step (I am further hobbling my career by taking a post-doc in a lab that is just starting doing really interesting and important reserach - gasp!)...but so far, so good, I'd say.

Kevin said...

Different example: I was in a fairly small field dominated by one research group. All journals publishing in that field had editors or reviewers from that group. I had a paper rejected, for what I thought were weak reasons. A year or two later, a conference paper consisting about half of a paraphrase of the rejected paper appeared with the editor as a co-author and one of his students as first author. I complained to the journal, but all they did was forward my complaint to the editor who had stolen (or allowed his student to steal) the work. It is quite likely that the student involved was not aware that stuff he was "reusing" had not been published---but the editor certainly was.

At what point does this sort of professional misbehavior become personal?

At that point, luckily, I got tenure and changed fields completely so that I would never encounter the scum again.
It might have been better for the integrity of science for me to have stayed and fought the good fight, but it was a dead-end field and I was much better off out of it.

Anonymous said...

During my PhD, my group (my project) was locked in battle with another group--one of the most famous in the field (we were not slouches either, mind you). My advisor took it very personally, and I don't think the other group did. They had little interest in debating us privately, and sort of ignored us publicly, and lobbied against us behind our backs. For various reasons, I know they were not very hosest about all their data, and that on the continuum of right/wrong, we were probably 85% right. The question I always wondered was how much would I--the lowly grad student--be associated with the battle when I was independent? A few years later, I'm independent and I'm pretty cordial with the "nemesis" (who is aware that he was our nemesis), and while I won't solicit him for awards letters, I might not be too apprehensive about asking him for a tenure letter--though I would still be nervous about it. The bottom line is that I need to get along with everyone, and my supervisor (who is actually in Canada, so not as beholden to the US network for funding) does not. What I learned most after these few years is that my supervisor is actually pretty paranoid and he thinks lots of groups are out to get him. It's too bad because if anything, most people I speak to about him think he is a great scientist with a warm heart. It's rather sad, and I will try my best not to let my students get caught up in the drama--even if it is exciting to be in a field where there is enough interest for a controversy in the first place.

EliRabett said...

Perhaps the only serious question here is whether the one issuing the warning is at a place where the student is applying for a job.

Anonymous said...

Pgan Topologist:
This sounds like workplace bullying. It needs to be stamped out.

Kris said...

I looked at 3 and fell over laughing (imagining "we hate your group sooo much I will _refuse_ to referee your papers, the worst insult in the history of the universe. haha!"), until I realised it was serious. Like some of the other commenters we have had situations where weak/badly performing senior staff do all they can to scupper more successful junior staff. All that happens is they look like the total losers they are, and with luck don't cause too much long-term damage.

Pagan Topologist said...

To anonymous at 1:59:The problem is that these comments were made in a confidential Promotion and Tenure Committee meeting. It is unfortunately unethical to even tell the person attacked about the incident.

Anonymous said...

@ "kevin":
"At that point, luckily, I got tenure and changed fields completely so that I would never encounter the scum again."

Wow, you actually changed fields all because of one person? why you let them have such power over you?

I changed fields because of one person too, my first postdoc advisor. He felt threatened by me because he was a new and young PI and very insecure. I was his first postdoc, and he was always trying to steal my work and ideas for himself without sharing any credit with me, and if I tried to hold my ground just asking for what is fair like, shared credit, he would do a lot of passive aggressive things to try and sabotage me. So I changed fields to get away from him. Yes he had a lot of power over me, and he won. But of course he had power over me, he was a PI and I was a mere postdoc depending on him for salary support. I was in a disadvantaged position to start out and I knew that once this guy didn't like me and was using his PI-power to sabotage me, there's nothing I can do to protect myself against him so I had to leave.

But what about you?? is the power differential in your situation so big that you had to change fields to escape one person?? you said you already had tenure?

Anonymous said...

I can imagine circumstances where this would happen. If the research groups in question are using a different set of methods / theories / assumptions, and each group thinks the other's work is useless crap...then the faculty from Camp 1 might reasonably think the young PhD from Camp 2 has "ruined" their career by working on useless crap, and should go away and stop siphoning grant money from the awesomeness that is Camp 1.

This happens all the time. Usually, both are right, and there's some hidden variable. But they'll gnaw each others' legs at every conference until somebody figures it out. (Which can be fun to watch, but unless you're bored and tenured, probably best to avoid.)

? said...

I think as a newly minted PhD he/she needs to stand up for him/herself. Academia is full of bullies and the quicker one learns to deal with them the better. The PhD mentor won't always be there to stand up for him/her.

Kevin said...

Wow, you actually changed fields all because of one person? why you let them have such power over you?

It wasn't quite that simple. I had wanted to change fields a couple of years earlier, when I recognized that the field was small, dead-end, and dominated by one research group. But at my pre-tenure review I had been instructed in writing to focus my research (meaning keep on plugging on the same problems), so I was stuck in the field until I got tenure. The thieving editor just made it clear to me that I had to get out of the field as soon as possible, which meant right after getting tenure.

Anonymous said...

Is there any circumstance in which this is an OK thing to say?

How about professor B has never graduated a single PhD student and all previous ones left in disgust? Nah, not even then. I would just drop a hint such as "oh really? you should talk to her former grad students for some useful pointers" and leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

>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.

In my field, there is an advisor who is known to steal his students' and postdocs' work without attribution, and to threaten them with ruinous professional consequences if they complain.

It would be ok to warn one of his recent ex-students about the advisor's past behavior, especially if said student hoped to publish any of his dissertation under his own name. Though, I hope it would be phrased like, "You know, [Advisor] sometimes publishes other people's work without their names. I don't know if he's planning to do that to you, but please be careful when you go to publish your work."

Kate said...

Regarding momphdstudent and CPP: Yes some take things too personally, and some are egotistical blowhards, but still others are trying to prevent a student from real harm by working with a particular person. When a student asks me my opinion about working with someone, and I have misgivings, I express them, while making it clear they are MY opinion alone. Grad school is oppressive enough as it is, if I can keep someone from having the life sucked out of her for six years I'll risk looking like someone with a grudge.

And on the topic of the post: I have "ruined" my career many times over (too much activism, not good choice of advisor, wrong job after phd) and I am in a t-t job at an R1. n = 1 but I thought I'd share anyway.

Ms.PhD said...

I think I've been the victim of this kind of thing.

In my field, aligning yourself with a particular PI by joining their lab (whether you get along well with your adviser or not!) is akin to choosing sides in world war.

When you meet new people, the first thing they ask you as a postdoc is who was your thesis advisor. You advisor's name automatically places you on one side or the other. You are automatically categorized whether you agree with your thesis advisor on everything, or not.

It's amazing how much it impedes the science that gets done, not to mention publications.

Nobody warned me about this when I joined my thesis lab. I might not have chosen this field if I had known how nasty it would be. And I'm not sure anyone could have foreseen that it would only get worse over time, rather than better.

Kieran said...

I think that if someone has completed a PhD, it's a bit late to be telling them that they've destroyed their career.

On the other hand, I do know of a couple of individuals doing research who I would regard as sociopathic bastards and I certainly have, on a couple of occasions, advised people considering doing PhDs with them not to.

WannaPhD said...

I was ruined by a Prof. in my final year of my B.A. I had been vaguely warned about this guy by another student but I had to take evening classes and he was the only section. He stood at the front of the class and told us that he couldn't train his chimp in Graduate school and "What good is all this knowledge if you can't apply it?" He set the lab class up for failure, and couldn't answer technical questions.
He should not be teaching a practical class. I asked questions and I became a target. He ruined me to the whole department and any chances I had of getting recommendations to go to grad school. What can I do?

Female Science Professor said...

Is this one professor so powerful that he can influence the opinions of the everyone else in the department? Just because you asked questions? If this one class was an outlier compared to the rest of your academic record, it shouldn't sink your chances re. graduate school. I don't know anything more about your situation, but if you have a strong academic record in all other respects, perhaps you can find others to write you letters to support your applications. I hope that you have been talking to other professors to demonstrate the depth of your interest in graduate research.