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academicians are pussies

Here is a comment that was recently left on this blog:

You’re a total pussy and judging by the comments above, that’s the norm in academia.

There is no justice in the world and there are no other lives where people get their karmic reward. You need to have the courage to tell people where to get off here and now, that’s the only way to beat the a-holes.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!  Sounds like someone who (1) isn’t in academics and (2) wasn’t loved enough as a child. 

But, it raises an important issue related to academics–how far do you take a fight?  Do you walk away, take a stand or take the fight to others?  It depends.  There are times when you will have to take it up the ass because the alternate would come at too great a cost.  But there are also times when it is completely appropriate and worth it to follow this commenter’s philosophy. 

However, “You need to have the courage to tell people where to get off here and now, that’s the only way to beat the a-holes” is the fastest way to get kicked out of academics in my experience, which is why I am writing this post.  In my opinion, the hardest thing you will have to do in academics is when at some point you will have to hold back on the urge to tell an asshole where to get off.  One of the barriers to always speaking your mind is the fact that your career (especially early on–but really until you become a departmental chair it seems) is controlled by a small group of people who all know each, were med or grad school buddies, talk to each other and hire based on each others recommendations.  Which is why pissing off the wrong person can totally destroy a career.  Moreover, someone is always trying to stick it to you in academics.  Papers, authorship, reagents, call schedule, etc.  Sometimes you gotta take one.  It’s called being a “team player”–a buzz word in medicine, for sure.  Even a reputation as someone who is not a team player can hurt. 

My point is that I’ve known a number of people who have adopted the general approach of “You need to have the courage to tell people where to get off here and now, that’s the only way to beat the a-holes“.  They have either been kicked out of or nearly kicked out of medical school, graduate school, residency and fellowship.  None remain in academics.  Which is why my empiric evidence suggests to me that you gotta be careful when it comes to getting into major conflicts.  You can be as courageous as you want to be but if it costs you your academic career or even an extra year or two in training, will it be worth it then?  Everyone I know who has gone through this would say that it wasn’t worth it. I agree that sometimes it is worth it to throw down.  I’ve had to a number of times as well and while it wasn’t pretty, it was the right move to make at that point.  But those occasions were few and far between.  More often than not, I and everyone else I know have had to take it.

Some people may call that being a pussy.  I call it being careful, calculating and deliberate.   I also think telling off every asshole that gets in your way is a poor career move and usually makes you appear to be an asshole as well.  Finally, I would be wary of anyone who suggests this as a general approach to life in academics.  This is not meant as an offense to the commenter but is simply based on the outcomes I’ve seen. 

So what to do?  As I’ve tried to relay before, I think the key is to first and foremost avoid such situations if possible, which is why I’ve been writing about my experiences in order to give suggestions for how to do so.  Second, I think you always have to be calculating and deliberate in what actions you do take.  If you decide to fight, then make sure it’s worth it.  If it’s not worth it, then walk away.  In either case, you can’t take a general willy-nilly approach to every circumstance. 

I’ve put out my experience on this but if readers from any stage in academia want to share their thoughts, experiences, or suggestions in the comments, I’d love to hear them since I think this issue of when and how far to take a fight is an important one for an academic career.

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4 Responses to “academicians are pussies”

  1. 1
    iar:

    I totally agree with your advice I think you have to pick your battles VERY carefully. I’ve been in a research lab for 3 years during undergrand and 2 during master’s-I don’t think I have to convince anyone that those are about as low as you can get on the totem pole. And believe me I got stepped on ALOT, but I can count on 1 measley finger the number of times I’ve actually stood up for myself. I agree with you point that you do not want to get a reputation for being an asshole very easily if you bitch after getting screwed over, and what I’ve seen the successful young faculty around me do it put their foot down before even getting into a situation where they could be screwed over. That is to say, much like you’ve mudphudder have mentioned with the collaboration you just got into and got out of, set guideline and try to come to agreements before you get into anything.
    The other reason why I personally have felt like I can’t really be seen as the asshole who just reams people every time they try to screw me over (intentionally or not) is because until I am chair of a department (and this is arguable too, as I work for a chair and trust me, he does not tell anyone off, EVER) or a tenured faculty, I STILL need to get ahead in my career. In my opinion it is much harder to get that stellar letter or your PI’s good word in to another person you want to work for/with if you just made yourself look like you can’t play with others.
    I think to get ahead in academia one must be very calculating and to be honest I think many of the highly successful academic around us are just that way. I think it is pretty easy to tell people off, and it is in fact much harder to um…censor yourself.

  2. 2
    Andrew:

    Hey Mudphudder,

    Definitely understand how trying not to step on others’ toes while a student can be at odds with standing up for yourself. I’ve found that the blunt, unemotional truth can be a powerful way to do so without crossing the professional line with some sort of “where to get off” response. If this woman was directly attacking you – i.e.- saying that your efforts were fruitless/not helping or that you were even hindering the project…or if she actually referred to you as “dead weight” (what a loser if that’s what she said). Here’s what I strongly recommend for a subsequent project meeting if the collaborator, we’ll assume her name is Ima Douche, doesn’t change her tone.

    Ima: Blah blah, dead weight, blah, not helping.

    Mudphudder’s response with direct eye contact back and forth to Ima and the PI: Well Ima, I disagree. The data I generated from the T cell assays is compelling. And these findings are clearly applicable to our x,y,z angle in this story. I don’t want to hinder progress towards the paper, so I agree that you should take over from here. If you end up including any T cell assay data in the manuscript, please don’t forget my contribution. I’d also be curious to see your results from follow-up experiments a,b,c.

    To summarize: 1. Claim credit for yourself where credit is due 2. Avoid the useless flame war 3. Keep yourself in the loop and stay poised to receive appropriate authorship when the time comes.

    Good luck buddy

  3. 3
    splenomegastar:

    Just as most blog writers are freakshows (present virtual company excluded), most blog readers are freakshows. I agree that you have to pick your battles in academia (and in the real world in general) unless you are one of those few gifted people that the community will take abuse from in exchange for huge contributions to the field. I think it’s good to finally hear someone writing openly about the dark side of academia. I’m only a second year md/phd student and I’ve already been screwed over as far as authorship. It’s not uncommon and I’m not a vulva just because I haven’t made a stink about it. However if my thesis work were involved, it would be a stink worth funking. Or something.

  4. 4
    mudphudder:

    Thanks for everyones support. And I completely agree with all of your approaches, namely that there situations worth fighting about and situations that aren’t worth fighting about. And, more often than not, it is not worth it, but when it is, you gotta be firm. I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to put my foot down and just say “no, absolutely not”–I wish I could write specifics but it might ID me–and sometimes I’ve had to make a graceful withdrawal, trying to get as much out of it as possible (e.g. making sure I at least get some authorship, like Andrew was saying).

    My point with this post was that there are definitely good people (medical and graduate students, postdocs and fellows) who unfortunately take the approach of this commenter and fight with anyone who may be trying to take something away. I’ve never seen this kind of approach work–i.e. none of them has ever stayed in academics–so I just wanted to put that warning out there. It sounds like you all (and probably most with some experience in academics) take a more prudent approach but if just one good person’s career can be saved by reading this…

    btw. Splenomegastar- actually, I am a freak show.

    Andrew- T cell assay? You’re a T cell guy? T cells are the BOMB. Good man.

    Iar- We all get stepped on a lot. Well, most of us anyway. Keep your chin up–I’ve heard it at least gets a little bit better as we move higher on the totem pole.

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