Month: July 2019

Hazards of Graduate School Success

Today I want to pass on some personal insight and advice for students who will be entering graduate school in the future, or who are already there.

This isn’t advice on how to succeed in graduate school. You can ignore this advice and still develop a successful career. But if you take it to heart and keep it in mind in the future, it could have tremendously beneficial consequences for the kinds of relationships you have with peers and colleagues.

I was fortunate to receive the same advice when I was in graduate school, many years ago. It came as a rather cryptic comment from my masters supervisor. At first I did not fully understand what he was trying to convey, but it became clear as time went by. I’ve thought about his words many times over the past 30 years, as I’ve witnessed the relevance of his advice playing out time after time.

Before I tell you what he said, a bit of context is necessary…  It was a few days before I would be moving to a different city and university to pursue a PhD in a different laboratory, and of course that meant with a different supervisor. I had enjoyed my time as a masters student and got along very well with my supervisor. He knew my main reason for moving was because I was interested in a different area of research than what I had been doing for my masters thesis. Moreover, instead of being the only graduate student in a small lab, like I had been during my masters, I would now be part of a larger research group, with several other graduate students working and training together under the supervision of a well-funded and somewhat well-known principal investigator (of course, this person would be my supervisor for the PhD). Within the same facility there were also a few other high-powered labs headed by prominent researchers. Frankly, my new destination was a more exciting research environment than the setting for my masters degree. My long-term goal was a career in research, so my masters supervisor knew the move would probably be good for me.

Coincidentally, my masters supervisor had recently visited the place and met my soon-to-be PhD supervisor. I think this encounter may have compelled him to give me the following advice. I’ll explain why later, after I tell you what he said.

We were having lunch together. Following a lull in our conversation, during which he gazed into the distance, looking especially thoughtful – he turned to me and said:

“Dave, don’t become an asshole.”

That’s all he said. Then he gazed ahead again, silent…

Now, he didn’t say, “don’t be an asshole”, which would have implied that he thought I was already one. That would have been devastating. He was clearly trying to convey a deeper message.

I must have looked puzzled, so he went on to say something about there being a lot of successful researchers who are assholes. He tried to clarify with some examples of professors in our department who were widely renowned for their research and whom he did not think were assholes. (You see, he was a classy guy, so he didn’t name anyone he thought was an asshole; but there was no doubt he could name a few if he had to). The professors he identified as good regular folks had been among his colleagues for many years, so he had come to know them fairly well. Of course, he had also learned which of his colleagues were despicable in one way or another, but he was respectful enough to avoid identifying them while making his point. It wasn’t necessary. And he wasn’t an asshole.

I don’t recall exactly how the conversation ended, but I know I didn’t ask him at any point just why he was telling me this. I was in my mid-twenties, so it was not news to me that some people are wonderful, while others are more or less contemptible. The real puzzle was just why he felt the need to bring it up. I assumed it had something to do with my upcoming move. But I didn’t understand how, exactly.

With time comes clarity

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but I never totally forgot about the weird advice: Don’t become an asshole. What was my previous graduate supervisor really trying to tell me? At some point – it was probably a couple of years into my PhD – it all started to make sense.

I recalled that my previous supervisor had met my current supervisor not long before our lunchtime conversation. These two men had very different personalities. Luckily for me, both were very supportive and dedicated to their students, and both of them positively influenced my development as an academic researcher and scholar. But they were altogether different characters.

My masters supervisor did not have a big-name reputation for his research, but he was an excellent scientist and a productive researcher. He was highly respected and well liked by people who knew him. He was friendly, but a serious and somewhat quiet man, free from vanity and pretentiousness. My PhD supervisor, on the other hand, was a jovial man with a tendency to be braggadocious, and the latter trait definitely annoyed some people. I personally got used to it, as I saw past that shortcoming and noticed his many good qualities. I liked him anyway, but other people would sort of roll their eyes when his name came up. He wanted very much to be respected and admired by his peers and colleagues, and he had many accomplishments to be proud of, but his ceaseless boasting about them was what most people would notice and remember about him. It wasn’t a good impression.

So, was this where my masters supervisor’s strange advice had come from. Had he been warning me not to turn into the type of a-hole he believed my PhD supervisor typified? I can’t say for sure, but I decided a long time ago that this is probably what was going through his mind. Whatever the truth may be, this assumption has helped me to notice certain prevalent features of a typical graduate school environment can negatively influence a person’s character and demeanour.

Hazards of success?

The way we interact with other people largely determines whether they will have a positive impression of us, a negative one, or a neutral one. We tend to like people who treat us fairly and with mutual respect. A few other traits help, too, like friendliness and benevolence, for example.

But all of us know people who we do not consider likeable or admirable – such as, people who treat others unfairly or disrespectfully. We do not like those who demean us, who are arrogant or haughty. By most people’s standards, those who frequently and persistently display these traits are contemptible assholes. We perceive it as being part of their character.

Contemptible individuals can be found in all sectors of society, so should we expect the academic research world to be any different? I don’t think so. But the issue isn’t that people like this can be found in the halls of academia. The real point I want to make – and maybe this is what my masters supervisor was thinking – is that success in an academic research environment can change some people, and when this occurs, the change is often for the worse.

Success brings confidence, but in some people, confidence turns into arrogance.

One thing that frustrates us about people who think too highly of themselves is their relative disrespect for others who they consider inferior (which is most of us). We hate their obvious disdain for our averageness, especially because we know they are really no better than us, and their personal successes are usually at least as much due to circumstances as to intrinsic individual greatness. Even when we recognize that someone really does possess great ability within some domain, we all know this is just a part of who they really are. Discovering that this person is also pompous ass tends to eliminate any respect we might have had for them based on their accomplishments.

I suspect that most readers perceive, like I do, that there is a correlation between how much fame and success people achieve and how self-important and condescending they tend to behave. Of course, it’s not a perfect correlation, and many good men and women retain their best virtues despite an ascent to fame and recognition. Not everyone becomes an asshole, and no one changes that way on purpose. And yes, some are assholes long before they achieve success and notoriety. But there are also some who only become so after operating in an enabling environment or context for a while. I believe graduate school can be like this for many students, especially at the doctoral level. I’ve seen evidence of it many times.

Don’t let success go to your head

One typical pattern involves early-career notoriety, resulting from some important finding that comes out of their graduate or postdoctoral research and which generated a notable buzz within the community of researchers who study the same subject. For at least a short time, their work becomes widely known and followed by others. They might speak at important conferences, participate in symposia, or receive invitations to give lectures at universities or research institutes. They may become known, at least within their field of expertise, as a ‘rising star’. All the attention is very rewarding (for most people), and therefore readily accepted. Most people who experience this type of early-career notoriety will want to keep it going, but doing so can become the main motivational driving force for the remainder of many people’s academic or professional careers.

Inevitably, most of the so-called rising stars (albeit not all of them) begin to believe their own hype. I’ve seen this pattern of events play out numerous times with bright young men and women during my long career. It also describes how the early stages of my own research career unfolded. So you could say, I’ve been there and done that.

Having confidence because of your previous achievements is good, but letting the attention generated by those achievements go to your head is not.

I’ve tried to follow my masters supervisor’ sage advice throughout my career. I’m not the one to say how well I’ve done at it, but I can honestly say that I’ve tried. But today the advice isn’t for me. It’s for you, dear reader.

In the long run, most people will ignore your professional achievements and base opinions of you on your personal demeanour and character. I hope you have success in graduate school and accomplish your career objectives. Along the way, remember where you came from, and don’t let praise and achievements spoil your character.

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