Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Pitfalls of some big-name institutions to avoid

Note: This article describes my observations at particular institutions and is not meant to be a generalization of all places, though certain themes, I'm sure, are wide-spread.

Many researchers want to work for a big-name institution. They get the best perks, get the most recognition, and can provide the best resources to employees. However, there are often problems at big-name institutions. Egos the size of dinosaurs fill the halls, and the power-hungry dominate the meeting rooms. In this type of culture, success can seem impossible. In this particular piece, I plan to highlight some of issues that arise in this type of environment, told from my own perspective.

Student entitlement
"I got into this institution, so everyone should be working for my success."
Students can come into these types of institutions with a strong feeling of entitlement. They think that getting into a good school means they will automatically succeed; and, if they aren't succeeding, it must clearly be someone else's fault. Often times, these students turn the professors into scapegoats for their failings. "That prof grades unfairly." "This prof is too demanding of students." "My thesis adviser isn't ok with me just working from 10-3 every day." These are just some of the complaints I've heard. It's never, "I should have studied harder," or "I should have put in more time." Some students are willing to take pretty extreme measures to push their agenda, such as raising an official complaint against a faculty member. And even when an impartial committee hears the case and rules in favor of the faculty member, the student may still continue to hold onto their delusional notion that the faculty member is out to get students. Just one student can do serious damage to a faculty member's reputation.
From the point of view of faculty, there are really two ways to respond to this culture. You can either lower your standards to accommodate the students who refuse to rise up, or you can continue to keep the bar high and let them hate you. It may seem like it would be fairly easy to take the high road and deal with being unliked by the students, but there are some serious consequences to consider here. When other faculty chose to lower their standards and you don't, your department starts viewing you as an outsider. You will be the one member of every thesis committee who is saying, "This person shouldn't be graduating yet," and other faculty can view you as difficult. Additionally, students will no longer chose to work in your lab based on the negative comments from older students, making it very difficult and more expensive to get research done (post-docs will soon make more than twice the salary of a typical PhD student in most institutions thanks to new legislation). This can be too high a price to pay for many faculty.

Big egos cause big problems
A single room can only hold so much ego before it bursts. At top-tier institutions, there can often be the problem of too much ego for one room to hold. This can lead to passive-aggressive shoving matches fought behind closed doors or all-out shouting battles. This is especially problematic, it seems, in the case of older faculty versus younger faculty. Many older faculty feel very secure in their role at the top of the food chain, thanks to their long track record of professorship. When a young faculty member comes in and brings lots of success quickly, alarm bells go off. The older faculty must now assert their dominance to make sure the younger faculty stays below them on the totem pole. This can mean passing people over for promotions they deserve, intentionally withholding departmental grants from a faculty member or their students, or even using your influence to direct good students and post-docs away from a particular lab.

Money runs the game
"You've heard of the golden rule, haven't you? Whoever has the gold makes the rules." Jafar speaks this classic line in Disney's Aladdin, but it holds true in many situations. Grant money runs the scientific environment, and in the current times of funding shortages, this form of the golden rule has never been more accurate. Labs with funding are able to recruit the "best" post-doctoral fellows and students, while poorly funded labs struggle to bring in much talent. This can be a self-perpetuating cycle. Also, oftentimes, well funded labs do not feel the need to collaborate as much, because they can get things done by themselves. This leaves little room for an up-and-coming lab to break into the system.

Who you know matters...a lot
Why is it that the students from the same labs always win certain awards, or certain labs are always able to get their work into that coveted journal? Sometimes it's because the lab is just that good, and produces superior work over and over again. Sometimes, though, it's because of the politics. Science can be a big game of who you know and what alliances you make. Knowing the right people can go a long way towards boosting scientific success, or at least perceived success in the form of awards or papers in good journals. However, this does not always align with the quality of the work, so "working the system" can catapult researchers to the fore-front of attention ahead of some who do good work, but are less well-connected.

Competition trumps collaboration
The hallmark of a successful scientific institution is often its collaborative environment. Unfortunately, some of the top-tier places lack this feeling. With so many high-powered research groups in one place, it's hard not to feel potentially threatened by your neighbor down the hall. This leads to the strategic withholding of information, omission of key details from departmental meetings, and protocol secrecy. The end result: researchers wasting time optimizing protocols someone next door has already optimized, students worrying that their work is going to be constantly scooped, and people not reaching out for help when they need it. This ultimately slows down the scientific process, not to mention wastes valuable financial resources.

Don't let the door hit you on the way out
Since competition can be so strong at top-tier institutions, when a faculty member that others perceive as a potential threat to their research prowess leaves, others may be far too ready to let them go. Each faculty brings unique skills and insights to a department, but many departments are ready to throw away faculty without a second thought if they feel threatened. The collaborative environment that needs to exist in science is especially threatened by this type of attitude.

Take some advice from Tim McGraw
"Don't take for granted the love this life gives you; when you get where you're goin', don't forget turn back around; and help the next one in line; always stay humble and kind."
Tim McGraw's recent song seems to be speaking a message directly to these top-tier institutions with these words. In a world of competition and surrounded by your own successes, it can be difficult to stay humble and kind. But that's exactly what we need in these institutions to maintain the collaborative spirit and culture of science for the sake of science (and not success) that is essential for improvements in the world. So, please, the next time "the work you put in is realized, let yourself feel the pride but always stay humble and kind."