Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Stupid vs. Devious

Lately I have a few (let's say 3) people in my work life who purport to be helping me, but whom I just don't trust.

Or maybe they're really just clueless, because some of the things they do seriously undermine me, fuck up my work, and get in my way.

Not knowing which is seriously hindering my ability to decide what (if anything) I can do about it.

1. The boss

Yes, I've blogged before about some of the PI-postdoc relationship problems.

The boss does things like making the titles of my papers so overstated that the reviewers can't help but say we haven't done what we claimed.

But it's really only the title that's the problem, because that's generally the main thing insisted upon by my PI. I have to pick my battles, and that is one I always lose.

Let me also mention, it has actually come to pass before that my PI deliberately refused to let me publish. Eventually, having failed to come up with sufficient excuses, PI made a lot of idiotic changes to the manuscript and then "suggested" reviewers whom I never would have picked in a million years.

Stupid? Or devious?

In all logic, PI should want to publish my work as much as I do. And yet. There have been so many cases of apparent sabotage... it starts to look like either the PI is a complete idiot (nevermind 20 years of experience on me), or it's all deliberate. I have seen PI stab other people in the back before, so why would I assume it's not the same with me?

2. The student

The student claims to want to help in lab. Wants to learn. Wants lab experience.

And yet.

Student has, of late, been fucking things up. Not taking notes. Not looking at old notes. Mixing things up.

Student is on 2nd chance already; do I give a 3rd?

I'm torn because I know this student does not want a career in research, and I respect that. But let's be honest: this student couldn't have a career in research anyway.

There, I said it. I've had other students. This one would be a no-go as a technician, nevermind in a graduate program where independence would be required.

But I do need an extra set of hands for some simple tasks.

And not much chance of getting a replacement student anytime soon.

What has occurred to me, however, is that the student is the sort who might try to get kicked out, rather than quit.

So, stupid, I think probably yes (both of us).

But devious too? Or just more stupid than I realized?

And before you ask why I hired this student- this was the only one who applied.

3. The collaborator

I have lots of collaborators, and some are trustworthy individuals devoted to doing good work...and some are less so.

This one in particular is, I think, only stupid in an EQ way.

Some of the things this collaborator is doing appear quite devious.

For example, in timing, a devious thing to do is making suggestions in front of our other collaborators that should have been discussed first in private. The ambush tactic. It's awkward, and somewhat rude, and usually in my experience, deliberate. Especially when immediately afterward, instead of realizing their mistake, they make the "What, me?" face, like they didn't do anything wrong.

What I can't figure out is whether it is worth continuing this collaboration, given the added stress of working with this person.

Keeping in mind, I really don't have room in my life for added stress of any kind.

Even worse, some of our other collaborators have said they don't like this person and are considering backing out because of that.

I don't think it's worth sacrificing the whole project, but we'd have to find someone else, which is also a source of stress.

Upon confrontation in private, Collaborator claims to be working on communication skills, and has this great new insight, making progress, etc.

This has happened a couple of times now, although I haven't really brought out the Big Confrontation Guns and said Fix This, or Get Out Now.

Because Collaborator always apologizes.

I just can't tell if this is sincere.

My habit would normally be to cut off all ties with someone like this, because whether it's intentional or not, it's unacceptable and it's jeopardizing the project.

But this is the Grown Up World and we have to learn to work with all kinds of people... right? And maybe I'm just being paranoid?


So... to sum up:

I think the student often pretends to understand, but doesn't. I feel like this is a test for my patience, among other things.

The PI only admits to making a mistake when it's too late, which makes me wonder if it wasn't the intended outcome all along. Otherwise, you might expect a person to learn the next time around that the procedure should be 1. Listen to MsPhD, it's her project. 2. Have nothing to apologize for later.

And I just don't know what to do about the collaborator. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

I don't think I have the energy right now to deal with most of this, but the only non-optional one is the Boss.

So do I tell the others to fuck off? What do you think?

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At 10:10 AM, Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

Ugh! How frustrating. I really don't know what to say about your PI but my 2 cents on the other people:

Student pretends to understand because s/he is afraid of looking stupid. You can either sit down and have the "everyone makes mistakes, there's no stupid questions, I need you to ask when you don't understand" conversation or, get rid of hir...if s/he is fucking up and wasting your time then that extra pair of hands is maybe more trouble than it's worth?

Re: the collaborator - if other collaborators are no longer interested in working with this person then it's not your job to salvage this relationship (nor are you likely to be successful at doing so in spite of your best efforts). The apologies may well be sincere, but unless the apologies are coupled with an actual change in the offensive behavior (really trying but still not succeeding doesn't count) you have to cut this one loose in order to keep the rest (if in fact, dumping this person is up to you). We're all adult professionals now - we don't give A's for effort in science. A's are for results.

Sorry for your frustration - good luck.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Becca said...

It may or may not be wise to tell them to fuck off... but I don't think malice is needed to explain any of these events. The clueless collaborator sounds particularly sad.

Anyway. It's probably useful to assume your PI is incapable of malice toward you. This isn't true, but you aren't the sort to get screwed over by being to pollyannaish anyway. It's a useful fiction, because people have a tendency to at least perform in the direction of expectations. And you'll spend less energy worrying.

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the lab's only female postdoc. There's so much passive aggressiveness in our lab plus jockeying for position. All this shit is just getting in the way of my science. I am for telling people to fuck off. If they're not part of the solution, they are part of the problem.

PI: nothing you can do about PI's. It's their lab and they can be the selectively forgetful boss and cause more trouble for you.

Student: this person is not helping. Cut him/her loose.

Collaborators: case-by-case basis. I don't put much faith in collaborative work. In the end, it doesn't really help you if you have a paper with these people.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Dr. J said...

I had a collaborator who just ceased contact wih me entirely after I pointed out they'd made an error. It wasn't even that important an error - a perfectly understandaable one which happens every now and then. I never got them on the phone or email again.

No moral to that the story at all. I just found it an interesting way for collaborators to function.

It is a Grown Up world, but that also means you can also say "Screw you" if they're playing like children. It isn't primary school - you aren't being forced into the same classroom as them by Adults Who Know Better. Just be prepared that they may take whatever you've put into the collaboration so far and publish it without you if you do break the collaboration. Grown ups don't play any fairer than kids.

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About your student, is he/she doing a research course thing with the lab?

I don't know...I am a gradute student, and I feel that my advisor is treating me like you're treating your student, ie. he doesn't really want me as his student, but he needs that extra pair of hands to help him with some research projects.

Now, I feel as if he's trying to drop me in my final year. Yes, I was one of 2 ppl who asked to be in his group years ago, and I was the only one who ended up staying. Recently, he took on another student, which I feel he has more interest in, so he's doing his best to drop me.

I'm never going to quit, but I just feel that my advisor wants to see up to what point I can sustain in his group, until all the funding runs out. I seriously think this is very unethical.

At 6:46 PM, Blogger Timray said...

yesterday i was ruminating on quantum weirdness sitting on a bus with Stauss playing in my ears when this face appeared in front of me.....lips moving and these noises that were probably questions on some survey he was taking and before i knew it i said....fuck off.....then the lips kept i reiterated fuck off and he moved on down the line but not before he seriously screwed up my thoughts on a sentence i was searching for....rather than being upset about having lost the sentence i realized i have come a long way baby....and felt good, i rejected totally an invasion of my space...good for you

At 7:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Based on 25 years in academia, in all the roles you mention:

Boss: its part of his job to promote your career. Nevermind his motives: its a business relationship and he isn't holding up his end. It is unprofessional at least and probably unethical to stand in the way of you publishing. Time to go.

Student: Assuming you can't replace this person, either resign yourself to doing the simple tasks or re-design so you don't need his hands. As a plan B, have something for him to do if he shows, but don't count on it. I'd guess his behavior won't change. Something else is more important to him.

Collaborator: Go with your gut on this - smells like he's being devious, so don't give him another minute of your time.

This is the business side of academia. You are an extremely valuable resource that other people will want to make use of. That's fine, as long as you deal with them on that level, as in, what's in it for you? I realize that financial, practical and political considerations might keep you from being quite this hard nosed. I'm just suggesting that you start with putting your time and work into this professional context and accommodate from there.

Good luck!!!


At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that stupid phenocopies devious much of the time. So what should you do? Fire the student, they are dragging you down. Do the minimum to keep your advisor not pissed off at you and otherwise keep your head down with your work. talk out the issue with your collaborator. don't let a boundary get re-negotiated for you.

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Hi Ms.Phd, here's my 2 cents:

1) It could be that your PI's behavior results from a need to make some kind of impact on your papers to justify (to herself) her position as last author on the papers. I had an experience like this when I was a grad student: After finishing my first paper (done on my own), my adviser, after reading it, suggested an additional "result" to add to the paper. It was a silly and trivial thing, but I couldn't say that to his face so I said OK and then hoped he would forget about it. But when I showed him the final version a week later he looked and saw that his silliness wasn't there and insisted that I include it. It was obvious to me that he was only doing this to justify (mainly to himself I suspect) his being a coauthor on the paper.

From that and a few other experiences I get the impression that advisers and PIs often feel a need to "make contributions" to the student's or postdoc's paper, even when it is silly and makes the paper worse, so that they can feel they are fulfilling their role of "training" their "trainee" and thereby earning their position as last author on the paper.

A suggestion for dealing with this: Instead of putting a sensible title on your paper to begin with, put a crazy title and make crazy suggestions for referees etc. Then your PI will be able to suggest the sensible title, referees etc herself and feel that she has made a good PI contribution. Be sure to lavish praise on her when she does this, saying that you would never have been able to think of that title yourself, and proclaim it to be the finest instance of training you have received in your career to date. The PI will love it! :)

2) I don't know about training students in a lab, but maybe it is a bit like training puppies? Are you remembering to give the student a cookie each time he/she does something right? ;)

3) I hate having to collaborate from a work perspective (because it is so rarely an equal collaboration etc.), but the social side compensates if the collaborators are nice people. So I'd refuse flat out to be in a collaboration with anyone who's an asshole. Life is too short!

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've followed your blog for a few months now so I'm familiar with a lot of what you have written about your PI and working environment. this is what I think:

1) your PI is devious
2) your student is clueless
3) your collaborator is devious

I had a postdoc PI who refused to let me publish too and I think it is always a red flag. initially you may think that the PI's objections to your publishing is because he just has really high standards for the paper...but that excuse only goes so far. you can tell when it's not about the quality of the paper rather the PI is being an obstructionist. Why would a PI be an obstructionist? I think there's lots of reasons: he may feel threatened by you (yes it happens believe it or not) and doesn't want you to progress in your career, he only wants you to be a highly skilled lab servant such as to maintain and manage the lab for example, but to not actually advance to the next professional level. Or the PI simply sees his postdocs as hired labor to do his bidding for his glory and not to be independent, and wanting to publish your work is showing independence so it is not acceptable. I think my PI was both. Either way, I went ahead and published my work eventually, after a 2-year limbo of trying to negotiate with him and figure out just what the F*** he wanted from me. And then when I published the paper he asked me to leave his lab so I gladly did. My paper got very good reviews from the reviewers and has been cited a decent amount since. But, I'm still a postdoc because I couldn't get a letter of recommendation since this PI hated my guts for being independent (meaning wanting to publish) so I had to start over somewhere else in a different field since everyone in my field is "related" to my previous PI.

Your collaborator is also being devious I think. In my dysfunctional postdoc lab with above PI, everyone was doing this all the time. Everyone trying to sink and undermine one another using ambush tactics. Collaborators actually trying to sink one another because of stupid turf wars or other playground silliness. Sometimes the backstabbing was behind closed doors such as on the very day of a deadline for a grant application suddenly you learn that your colleagues have changed the focus of the proposal without telling you. other times it would be in public like at large team meetings or even seminars.

I am so glad that I now work in a better environment. Well actually I wouldn't say that it's "better" since we have a whole other set of working-relationship problems, just that it's more transparent. No nasty surprises, just a constant openly confrontational and hostile atmosphere. But I much prefer open confrontation to all the silent back stabbing that my previous lab and PI did.

At 4:16 AM, Anonymous C said...

From your post you give the impression (which of course may not be correct, I can't tell from a blog post) that confrontation is the way you deal with people and you want to know whether they are being deliberately awkward or not so you know how to confront them.

Confrontational guns don't work, especially when not accurately aimed. How about a not-so-confrontational approach that focuses on the shared goals that you two have (you & PI, or you & student, or you & collaborator). That way, you don't actually need to figure out whether they are being stupid or devious. You concentrate on the shared aims - "We want to get this paper accepted, right?" and concentrate on the means to achieve those, not on what the other person is messing up. Positive constructive suggestions, not destructive criticism.

I do sympathise because it sucks to be having to work with non-helpful people.

I had a bad situation myself some time ago when I had to work with someone who publically humiliated me (and I don't know whether he was being deliberately vicious or not and I still don't know and it doesn't matter) and I got some help from some other women in science, who recommended to me a great book about communicating with awkward people. It was extremely helpful and enabled me to move on in a constructive direction and get the job over and done with. If you are interested I can look up the details. It just sounds like it would be useful to you. It certainly wouldn't hurt.

At 6:57 AM, Blogger Mercury said...

Ah, academic life. Been there, done that and I still hear complaints from students...some trivial, some sexist, some very ego damaging. Interesting blog and I will plow through your archives.

At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you can't rule out stupidity as a factor in people's behavior, stupidity is probably the reason for those people's behavior.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I tried having the "everyone makes mistakes" conversation with the student. More than once. I think I'm willing to give maybe one more chance, maybe none.

re: actual change with the collaborator, that's what I'm wondering. Do I give another chance there, or not. Is it worth the added stress in either case.

Interestingly, there's a majority among the comments, but not a clear consensus.


I think that's great advice. Expect good behavior and hope that has some good influence on the situation... but know that it's a useful fiction.


I disagree about collaborations. In many cases, it's the only way I've been able to get my work done, and the only thing that has made science fun when my immediate lab members are useless/jerks.

Dr. J,

I've had a collaborator like that before, and a few situations where I had to be extremely sugar-coated about telling them their work was not good enough for me to publish without further improvement. I've adopted Becca's attitude toward that- I try to be as fair and non-judgmental as possible, and then I just continue on as if everything is fine, but it does require that they be willing to accept incoming communication!


No, this student is not a student who is doing this as a course or a project. This was more of an investigative experience just to see what people do in a lab, which is how I did most of my research work before I went to grad school.

I think all PIs fear having things go downhill with a student, but especially a grad student since you're there for so long. But we're reluctant to make snap judgments early on, too.

I've had students who completely surprised and impressed me with the steepest learning curves, and I'm so proud of them now. And I've had students who just flatlined from day 1.

Even this one has learned some things and improved somewhat, but it's hard to know where to put the mistakes in the balance, when they are time-wasting drops in the middle of a gradual upward trend. If any had been actually hazardous, I would have said goodbye by now.

I think the "new toy" problem among PIs is very common, I've seen it happen over and over. The new one always gets the most attention. If you're in your final year, you just need to finish up and get out. By the time you reach that point, there's very little they can do to stop you. Hang in there!


good for you!


Boss: yup

student: you're exactly right

collaborator: might be time to have that awkward breakup talk (but we can still be friends)

Anon 9:13,

LOL! and interesting that you said the opposite of what Mercy said re: the collaborator.


re: PI's impact, absolutely, I think that is part of it. And that is exactly what I do.

re: puppies, I don't train them. I am not giving cookies for the bare minimum of not pooping on the carpet.

re: life is too short, yes. unfortunately this person does have some redeeming qualities- I'm not sure I'd say "outright asshole" in this case, or I would have dumped the collaboration by now. Maybe I am overcompensating in my efforts to be more patient in general.

Anon 10:31,

Interesting that we've had so many similar experiences. And that you and C said the opposite of each other re: open confrontation vs. not so open.


I would be interested in getting the details on that book (assuming I haven't read it already?).

I often run into this problem that when I try to be non-confrontational, the person doesn't get the message that something needs to change. But confrontations don't work when the person is socially dysfunctional to begin with.



Anon 4:51,

LOL! That's why I'm struggling with this. I don't put much stock in IQ tests, but I sometimes wonder if it's just my unrealistic expectations!

At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Stupid vs. Evil" was a debate we often had in my graduate lab. In my personal world, evil/devious is so much more work and trouble than just doing the right thing in the first place that I couldn't actually understand where "devious" was even coming from. So in these younger, naiver days, I pretty much always tried to believe in the stupid. And I think I still bear some emotional (and professional!) scars from finding out, the hard way, that devious often wins the day in the end. My sad observations are that science culture actually makes deviousness easier than getting results yourself with too little time, money, and/or good ideas and luck. My strategy now in dealing with all of this is to (emotionally) do my best to assume a devious motivation and basically write certain colleagues off on an emotional and personal level, but to behave as if I believe in the stupid. That way, the problems can be addressed in a "how can we fix this together" professional courtesy way rather than a "hah - caught you red-handed!" way, and we can sill exchange pleasantries when we see each other at national meetings. And, you know, the vicious cycle can smoothly continue with everyone's complicit understanding that this is the way it all works. (Another thing that I've learned is that, in order to succeed in an environment where some might be compelled to make up data or steal results or charm some poor soul into working for them means legitimately becoming "the one who works hard" even if not in the sloppy struggler phase.) Best of luck politiking in your lab!


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