The Dark Side of Academia

ParsonsDr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

Listen, my Sith apprentice, strong in knowledge you are but there are those who are stronger and more intelligent than you, but to persevere and gain in status, strong in the dark side you must become. In these times funding is limited, tenured positions are few, and competition is great. Graduate students are many, and many of these have ideas for new research and new hypotheses that pose a threat to the current order. The hierarchy must be maintained with us at the apex, and no competition must be allowed.  Nurturing, cooperation, and egalitarianism -those are the characteristics of the light side and the light side is weak, and progress on the light side is slow. So my Sith apprentice, here is my advice to you to progress and succeed, especially when there are those around you who are more innovative, knowledgeable and intelligent than you.

1) Always claim credit for other people’s work. Join committees and take on graduate students and stay in the shadows doing nothing, but wait and watch until success is near, and then swoop in and claim the idea for the project was yours, or insist on co-authorship in papers, because this is your right. Make the most of your seniority to portray the ideas and projects as your own in faculty meetings, media interviews or keynote speeches. Remember they listen to those who speak the loudest and most frequently. If a graduate student complains about you taking credit for their ideas, remind them that, were it not for you, they would not have their stipend or funding, and that universities are a learning experience and they have learned something. Also, you are senior faculty and they are merely students, so who would the administration believe?

2)  If a new hypothesis appears that conflicts with ideas that you have posited in your papers, even if those hypotheses are supported with evidence, resist them at all costs. The scientific method is based on testing hypotheses, and rejecting or accepting these hypotheses based on observations and data, but if the data conflict with your hypotheses – especially when your hypotheses can get you funding – dub these new hypotheses “bad science”, for the only “good science” is that which agrees with yours, and thus keeps your funding coming. Find as many minute issues to nit-pick as possible, even if those issues do not detract from the new hypotheses’ main arguments. Do not worry about illogical or circular arguments, just snow your opponents under an avalanche of implied criticism. Remember, the grants must flow, and you must do everything you can to maintain that.

3) Remember: aggression leads to fear and fear leads to no questioning.  Be overtly aggressive, obnoxious and unpleasant and scare people so they don’t question you. Shout and speak through others who contradict, oppose, or question you. This strategy works especially well on women (who are less likely to be aggressive), young students (who lack the confidence to oppose you), nationalities that have a culture of being respectful to their superiors and elders, and those with plain old good manners and decency. (For more on being obnoxious and arrogant in academia, see these excellent blog articles that were an inspiration for this advice here and here.

4)   Use your reviewing power for evil – delay reviewing and ultimately reject papers that report on work that is similar to yours, especially when you have never got around to publishing on that topic because you are so disorganized. This will give you a window of opportunity to write up your own paper and to scoop them. Reject papers that conflict with your work even though the evidence suggests that the studies are correct, and also reject good ideas and steal those ideas for your own. Remember online journals with little peer review and grey literature can often publish faster than traditional journals, and these may be a way to claim an idea while your opponent is still struggling through the sluggish peer-review process of more established journals.

5)  Be sexist. The majority of biology graduate students are female, but if you look at the senior faculty in most departments or at the head table in biology conferences, they are usually white, bearded males. These young female scientists are a threat – they are intelligent, work hard and have new ideas. Force them out of the field by being sexist and harassing them (see 3 above). If they manage to secure one of the few faculty positions open and decide to raise a family, make their life more difficult by denying maternity leave, not providing child care and scheduling lectures during school pick up times, and give an especially heavy teaching load or expectations for field work during the school holidays. Constantly compare their research output to young single males who have no home life to juggle. Also make no allowances for minorities, especially if they come from economically disadvantaged back grounds, English is not their first language or they come from very different cultural or religious backgrounds. Constantly point out their differences and set unrealistic expectations – always make them feel as if they are outsiders and do not belong.

6)   Put down the work of those that might be competing with you for positions, publications, grants or tenure. Even better, when you are unable to formulate an argument why their work is bad (because it is not), the evidence overwhelmingly supports their well-crafted argument, or their qualifications and publications list rival your own, resort to the ultimate weapon of the dark side: the ad hominem attack. You are in an institution where people believe what they are told by senior scientists, because that is what teaching relies upon. So if it is difficult to put down an adversary’s work through other means, tell  academic colleagues and students that someone is unethical, is badly behaved or some similar slur.  Even better, make up a rumor about sexual impropriety or racist behavior. Remember, people assume that where there is smoke there is fire, even though the smoke is completely fabricated, and mud sticks forever in the days of the internet.

Remember this advice, my apprentice, it will serve you well. Now arise, Darth Academia, and together we shall rule the University.

(I’d like to acknowledge the excellent blog articles by ThesisWhisperer  which inspired the above article and echo some of my concerns about the current nature of academic culture as noted above.)