How Not to Suck at Identifying and Coping with “Rhymes with ‘Glass Bowls’”

April 2016

From the vocabulary.com definition: “insulting term of address for people who are stupid or irritating or ridiculous or unpleasant. If you call someone an asshole, then they’re probably doing something not just stupid and annoying, but mean. Like all slang words and obscenities, this is a word you need to be careful about using. Saying asshole in class, in a paper, at a job interview, or even on television could get you in serious trouble. If you’re not alone with your buddies, stick to a safer word like jerk or doofus.”

Academia is rife with examples of destructive and hostile behaviour among professors who hold power over others. Not a week goes by without a newspaper report of a well-known university professor who is a serial sexual harasser. Every graduate student has a story of at least one professor who has behaved in a way that can be considered manipulative, angry, insulting, demeaning, degrading, vengeful, and otherwise taking advantage of humans with little power. Careers are often ended before they begin by graduate students identifying their supervisors as assholes too late in their educational process to make changes. Such experiences are devastating personally and professionally. The ability to identify, avoid, and cope with academic jackholes is a major predictor of career success for people without power (i.e., graduate students, postdocs, untenured faculty).

To be fair to assholes, there are many systems that encourage a high degree of assholery. For example, some universities bestow credit or honours for authorship of a refereed publication only if the professor is the first or sole author. In such systems, graduate students or postdocs, who do the majority of work on a study, may be deprived authorship or given secondary authorship. Much of academia has a “zero sum game” approach. In other words, a given professor does not receive credit and the consequent rewards if someone else has success. Therefore, it is just as effective and sometimes easier to undermine others and prevent success of underlings rather than demonstrate quality of work. Although there are cases of active sabotaging the work of others, most frequently passive-aggressive undermining of others is the tool of the asshole. There are always finite amounts of dollars in a grant envelop, usually only one person can win an award every year, and annual faculty evaluations tend to be norm-referenced. As long as there are competitive rewards, there will be assholes. And most galling, assholes often win.

Identifying Bleepholes

A major skill is to identify challenging people as early as possible and then avoid situations where the asshole will have any power over you. There is no level of funding, professional connections, inspiration or knowledge that is worth being abused and slowly having your soul crushed. There are many outstanding well-funded, inspirational, and knowledgeable scholars who are also supportive humans and productive mentors. Most typically we do not find out which supervisors are assholes until it is too late. Early identification and avoidance of assholes is a critical variable in making your life as a scholar easier, more enjoyable, and more productive. There are keywords to identifying assholes — a vocabulary of assholery. Unfortunately, this is one of the confusing aspects of identifying the asshole. The keywords words used to identify assholes are quite similar to the vocabulary used in successful grant proposals or by the orange 2016 US GOP presidential candidate. Self-aggrandizing and superlative language is common. If, in an introductory discussion with a senior faculty member, more than three of these words or phrases are used, then there is a high probability that you are talking to an asshole: best, state-of-the-art, paradigm altering, innovative, superior, elite, most demanding, highest achieving, most productive, most highly cited, award-winning, highly selective, high standards, and hardest working. And it nearly goes without saying that anyone who uses the expression “we work hard and play hard” is to be avoided.

A major feature of senior faculty assholes is their belief that they are the self-appointed arbiters of what is true science. Although they may be talented and productive, and sometimes correct, they insist on evaluating the work of others when no one asks their opinion with phrases such as, “What you are doing is interesting, but it does not reach the level of what I would consider to be science.” Another common feature is that the criteria used to evaluate whether something is true science tends to shift depending on how the outcomes of the evaluation can benefit the asshole.

Egocentrism and the pathological desire to control every aspect of their world are also primary factors. From an academic perspective such people are far more interested in using graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty as mechanisms by which they can leave a legacy. They are far more interested in how others can support and promote the asshole’s own ideas and agenda. The concept that the asshole’s ideas (and therefore the asshole him/herself) are the centre of the universe is quite common. Of course, criticism of the ideas is considered a personal attack. Moreover, even if the junior scholar chooses an independent trajectory that goes outside of the orbit of the asshole’s ideas, then that is also considered a personal attack or slight. Any behaviour that suggest that the asshole and his or her ideas are not the most important thing in the universe will be perceived as an attack or slight. And there will be ramifications.

Faux generosity and selflessness is another common feature. Any senior person who sounds like a martyr by humble bragging about how successful their students are due to his or her extensive and outstanding supervision is a problem. An example of the faux generosity is, “He needed the publication, so I gave him a paper topic and some data that I developed.” Another tactic of the asshole is bragging about how selfless their supervision style is. For example, “My students are so successful because I invest so much time and money in them. Supervision probably detracts from my other work, but I do it anyway because the students need me.” The not-so-subtle message is that the students would not be capable of success without the brilliant involvement and sacrifices of the senior scholar-hole.

When talking with potential supervisors and colleagues, one of the most effective questions involves asking them to evaluate their colleagues. Some will straight out trash talk their colleagues. For example, “Most of the faculty in this department are inept or lazy.” Assholes with a semblance of social skills tend to make comparative and evaluative comments about peers. For example, “Dr. Smith runs a very good lab, but their work is not as cutting-edge as what is done in our lab.”

A common approach to identifying sphincter-centric academics is to interview current students, previous students, and other professors. This is an excellent idea that I strongly encourage. However, there is only one predictive variable. That is the long pause after you asked the direct question. For example, “I am thinking of working with Dr. Jones. What is your experience in working with him (or her)?” If the first word in the response is, “Um” or if there is a noticeable pause before the first word is said, then you have your answer.

You want to examine the publication record of potential supervisors and colleagues. Examining authorship of refereed publications for the presence of student co-authors is an important factor. Graduate student and postdoc co-authors who have first or second authorship on a large number of papers indicate at least some general decency in assigning authorship. In addition, try to find out how many students begin working in that person’s lab, but transfer or drop out prior to graduation. Such information must be evaluated as a function of the norms of the Department; but if the majority of students who begin their graduate school careers in the lab do not graduate, then obviously red flags are raised.

Avoiding Bleepholes

A major mistake that many students and postdocs make when selecting a supervisor is that they focus entirely on the subject area, funding, and the reputation of the potential supervisor in their field of study. A better method is to look for signs of assholiness and, if found, keep looking for a supervisor with a productive style of respectful supervision.

Because assholes tend to be egocentric their sphere of influence in any academic community is limited. Despite the grudging respect of colleagues, most of them have peers who understand how challenging it is to work with these individuals. Even if you have managed to avoid the direct supervision of an asshole they can still make your life difficult. Assholes will frequently offer their opinion on their peers, provide passive-aggressive commentary, and dismiss students who are not working directly with him as being inferior. This is not so bad because you have the support of your own supervisor, lab peers, and other colleagues who can be supportive. My favourite response to digs, passive-aggressive slights, and veiled or not-so-veiled insults is to say: “I am having a difficult time interpreting what you said in a productive manner. Can you please reframe that in a manner that I can use it productively?” Sometimes the jerk will actually rework the statement so that the statement or question is actually helpful. However, the true and irredeemable asshole will say something like, “I did not intend that statement to be productive.” Your only logical response should be, “ I know.”

Coping with Bleepholes

Although my default line of recommendation is that everyone should avoid working with an asshole, many of us find ourselves in an unavoidable situation. Moreover, one person’s asshole is another person’s driven and inspirational advisor. I know that many people considered my mentor to be an asshole, but I have always found him generous and to be an excellent advisor. So how does one survive the challenges of being supervised by one of these people?

Find the Strengths. I have a colleague who has a mentor, who is well known far and wide to be an asshole. This mentor moves from university to university as he wears out his welcome. However, my colleague finds this supervisor to be an inspiring and generous mentor who opens career doors. She speaks glowingly of his kindness in working with others. She is well aware of the flashpoints and topics that will lead to conflict. She is aware enough to avoid these areas while benefiting from his skill set. She simply refers to the challenges of working with this mentor as “the price of admission.”

Negotiate everything, then get it in writing. Perhaps the most important feature of working with the asshole is the lack of trust and capricious nature of decision-making. Write everything. I like to have students summarize our individual meetings and send that summary to me in an email. This is an excellent idea to protect yourself from the whims of a senior author who have been known to change their minds. Everything must be negotiated before beginning. Make sure that all financial, vacation, responsibilities, hours to be worked, authorship on papers, travel opportunities, and other relevant issues are in writing. Ensure that the supervisor has a copy of all this writing and agrees to it. Likewise, having student or collaborator write exactly what they will contribute to a project or to laboratory life is equally important. It is not insulting to insist on all commitments being clarified.

Resilience. There are many, if not most, graduate students in this difficult situation simply accept their situation. They do their work, take abuse, and then go home. The next day they wake up and repeat. Although I am impressed with the perseverance and resilience of these quietly desperate young professionals, I hope they are not paying too large of a price for their compliance. Constantly working in a stressful environment is corrosive to one’s mental health. We know that graduate students and new scholars have a high incidence of anxiety disorders, depression, and withdrawal from their studies due to abusive mentoring relationships with supervisors. In addition, I am concerned that the asshole mentor serves as a role model for the behaviour of the next generation of senior scholars. However, quietly avoiding the wrath of the asshole and escaping with a degree or research experience is enough for many people. Frankly, that does not work for me. I do not have the strength and resilience of many graduate students.

Confrontation. Confrontation can be a valuable tool, but is extremely difficult to use. Being firm, polite, and professional in establishing and creating boundaries in working with superiors is an extremely difficult social skill under any circumstance. I have a friend who engaged in weekly hostile shouting matches with her mentor. The tone was often ugly, dramatic, personal, and emotional. They screamed at each other for at least 15 minutes and then the conflict was over. Neither seemed to hold a grudge for long and their work was productive. When asked how they can function in such a hostile environment, the response was, “This is not hostile. He respects me for standing up to him.” Okay. I am not sure that this is an approach that I would recommend, but I guess it works for a few brave souls. Some people thrive on drama.

Conclusions

If you are working in the academic world, then you have almost certainly failed to avoid working with assholes. No matter how resilient and strong you may be as an individual, everyone working with difficult supervisors or senior colleagues will eventually get tired and discouraged. We all require external supports to serve as protective factors to the corrosive effects of working with assholes. Some protective factors include personal supports (significant others, family, non-academic friends), peer supports (colleagues, virtual communities, co-authors), and systemic support (high status academics, ombudsmen, administration). Do your homework, prepare, and protect yourself. The early stages of your academic career do not have to be miserable. Identifying, avoiding, and coping successfully with assholes is a major predictor of your success, satisfaction, and long-term mental-health.

SRShaw

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