Egosystem management. Or how tantrums and unprofessional behavior are hindering conservation

In helping to organize several meetings and events for conservation groups, I’ve frequently encountered conservation professionals loudly declaiming “Don’t you know who I am!” and expecting special treatment. Recently I got an email from someone whose abstract was rejected by a conference committee I was assisting, in which they had quite a tantrum. There were lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go again to any meetings by this professional society and will resign their membership. I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do – whether it be rejections for journals, jobs or conference presentations.

However, I also told that person that anyone who’s been an academic for a while gets used to being rejected. Few papers get accepted at first submission, for example. So most conservation professionals take it in their stride. Moreover, anyone who is in the conservation field should really get used to difficulties and failures, as these are all too frequently components of the job. A conservation biologist is not going to last long if they go berserk at the least slight or hard knock or have a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument, understanding and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to “get up again”.

As a result, one could reach the conclusion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc. should not last long in real-world conservation. Sadly, such tantrum-throwing individuals may last longer, or even thrive, in academia, but that’s another story. However, that person will be a horror for colleagues in the field. So for the case above, resigning from a society or refusing to go to conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch going to premiere meetings to learn the latest cutting-edge conservation and science over a run-of-the-mill abstract rejection, then it’s their loss and frankly our gain…

However, despite the potential forces of natural selection, inflated – yet fragile – egomaniacal bloviates are still all too common in the conservation world. There are several major marine conservation initiatives that foundered because, for example, coalitions would not let certain organizations have top billing in materials, and the thwarted organizations walked away, taking their essential funding with them. Others would not cooperate with conservation academics from a competing institution, and held back essential information and resources, causing the project to collapse. Frequently managing a conservation project is more about managing the egos of collaborators, or the egos of their organisations, rather than managing the actual project itself. This type of “human resources” management is, unfortunately, a skill in which few conservation professionals receive any training. Too frequently these days, in order to achieve conservation success, you have to first manage the ego-system, before finally getting down to efforts to restore the eco-system.

New achievement milestones for academic life

Overall job satisfaction in academia has been steadily declining for many independent reasons I won’t get into here (see Nature 1 and 2). However, we do need to accept some ownership for this dissatisfaction. Our expectations and goal posts are understandable set very high.  Indeed for many of us, our impossible standards and stubborn determination are the only reasons we got this far, so it can be painful – nigh impossible – for those who are hardwired to overachieve to step back and be happy with the big picture. We need to, because the stakes are as high as health, sanity, and relationships.

This inspired me to develop a new set of milestones to measure our academic careers by. Not only for our sanity, but especially for those younger scientists and students still fighting their way up the ladder.

Here are 12 new milestones of achievement I recommend we measure our career success by:
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Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.


Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

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