Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

Two of my favourite people in the academic world are my friends Rachael Pitt (aka @thefellowette) and Nigel Palmer. Whenever we have a catch up, which is sadly rare, we have a fine old time talking shop over beer and chips (well lemonade in my case, but you get the picture).

Some time ago ago Rachael started calling us ‘The B Team’ because we were all appointed on a level B in the Australian university pay-scale system (academic Level B is not quite shit kicker entry level academia – that’s level A just in case you were wondering – but it’s pretty close). I always go home feeling a warm glow of collegiality after a B team talk, convinced that being an academic is the best job in the entire world. Rachael reckons that this positive glow is a result of the ‘circle of niceness’ we create just by being together and talking about ideas with honesty and openness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnyway, just after I announced my appointment as director of research training at ANU, the B team met to get our nerd on. As we ate chips we talked about my new job, the ageing academic workforce, research student retention rates. Then we got to gossiping — as you do.

All of us had a story or two to tell about academic colleagues who had been rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile to us in the workplace. We had encountered this behaviour from people at level C, D and E, further up in the academic pecking order, but agreed it was most depressing when our fellow level Bs acted like jerks.

As we talked we started to wonder: do you get further in academia if you are a jerk?

Jerks step on, belittle or otherwise sabotage their academic colleagues. The most common method is by criticising their opinions in public, at a conference or in a seminar and by trash talking them in private. Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity. I’m sure it’s not just academics on the payroll who have to deal with this kind of jerky academic behaviour. On the feedback page to the Whisperer I occasionally get comments from PhD students who have found themselves on the receiving end  — especially during seminar presentations.

I assume people act like jerks because they think they have something to gain, and maybe they are right.

In his best selling book ‘The No Asshole Rule’ Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, has a lot to say on the topic of, well, assholes in the workplace. The book is erudite and amusing in equal measures and well worth reading especially for the final chapter where Sutton examines the advantages of being an asshole. He cites work by Teresa Amabile, who did a series of controlled experiments using fictitious book reviews. While the reviews themselves essentially made the same observations about the books, the tone in which the reviewers expressed their observations was tweaked to be either nice or nasty. What Amabile found was:

… negative or unkind people were seen as less likeable but more intelligent, competent and expert than those who expressed the the same messages in gentler ways

Huh.

This sentence made me think about the nasty cleverness that some academics display when they comment on student work in front of their peers. Displaying cleverness during PhD seminars and during talks at conferences is a way academics show off their scholarly prowess to each other, sometimes at the expense of the student. Cleverness is a form of currency in academia; or ‘cultural capital’ if you like. If other academics think you are clever they will listen to you more; you will be invited to speak at other institutions, to sit on panels and join important committees and boards. Appearing clever is a route to power and promotion. If performing like an asshole in a public forum creates the perverse impression that you are more clever than others who do not, there is a clear incentive to behave this way.

Sutton claims only a small percentage of people who act like assholes are actually sociopaths (he amusingly calls them ‘flaming assholes’) and talks about how asshole behaviour is contagious. He argues that it’s easy for asshole behaviour to become normalised in the workplace because, most of the time, the assholes are not called to account. So it’s possible that many academics are acting like assholes without even being aware of it.

How does it happen? The budding asshole has learned, perhaps subconsciously, that other people interrupt them less if they use stronger language. They get attention: more air time in panel discussions and at conferences. Other budding assholes will watch strong language being used and then imitate the behaviour. No one publicly objects to the language being used, even if the student is clearly upset, and nasty behaviour gets reinforced. As time goes on the culture progressively becomes more poisonous and gets transmitted to the students. Students who are upset by the behaviour of academic assholes are often counselled, often by their peers, that “this is how things are done around here” . Those who refuse to accept the culture are made to feel abnormal because, in a literal sense, they are – if being normal is to be an asshole.

Not all academic cultures are badly afflicted by assholery, but many are. I don’t know about you, but seen this way, some of the sicker academic cultures suddenly make much more sense. This theory might explain why senior academics are sometimes nicer and more generous to their colleagues than than those lower in the pecking order. If asshole behaviour is a route to power, those who already have positions of power in the hierarchy and are widely acknowledged to be clever, have less reason to use it.

To be honest with you, seen through this lens, my career trajectory makes more sense too. I am not comfortable being an asshole, although I’m not going to claim I’ve never been one. I have certainly acted like a jerk in public a time or two in the past, especially when I was an architecture academic where a culture of vicious critique is quite normalised. But I’d rather collaborate than compete and I don’t like confrontation.

I have quality research publications and a good public profile for my scholarly work, yet I found it hard to get advancement in my previous institution. I wonder now if this is because I am too nice and, as a consequence, people tended to underestimate my intelligence. I think it’s no coincidence that my career has only taken off with this blog. The blog is a safe space for me to show off display my knowledge and expertise without having to get into a pissing match.

Like Sutton I am deeply uncomfortable with the observation that being an asshole can be advantageous for your career. Sutton takes a whole book to talk through the benefits of not being an asshole and I want to believe him. He clearly shows that there are real costs to organisations for putting up with asshole behaviour. Put simply, the nice clever people leave. I suspect this happens in academia all the time. It’s a vicious cycle which means people who are more comfortable being an asshole easily outnumber those who find this behaviour obnoxious.

Ultimately we are all diminished when clever people walk away from academia. So what can we do? It’s tempting to point the finger at senior academics for creating a poor workplace culture, but I’ve experienced this behaviour from people at all levels of the academic hierarchy. We need to work together to break the circle of nastiness.

It’s up to all of us to be aware that we have a potential bias in the way we judge others; to be aware that being clever comes in nice and nasty packages. I think we would all prefer, for the sake of a better workplace, that people tried to be nice rather than nasty when giving other people, especially students, criticism about their work. Criticism can be gently and firmly applied, it doesn’t have to be laced with vitriol.

It’s hard to do, but wherever possible we should work on creating circles of niceness. We can do this by being attentive to our own actions. Next time you have to talk in public about someone else’s work really listen to yourself. Are you picking up a prevailing culture of assholery?

I must admit I am at a bit of a loss for other things we can do to make academia a kinder place. Do you have any ideas?

Related posts

Academic Arrogance

The stegosaurus strategy

264 thoughts on “Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

  1. Thanks for this- I’m a PhD candidate who just got the true asshole treatment from a senior faculty member while doing a public presentation to recruit participants for a research study. I guess the lab coat in a room of people casually-dressed should have given away his status immediately… Just wanted to let you know this post helped me deal with ‘why’ he was an ass. I don’t have any suggestions for how to make academia a kinder place, but hopefully if more people try to understand the reasons underlying negative behaviours, a cultural shift can take place. Once again, appreciate the post.

    • Hi Kate, this has happened to me too. I’m a PhD student, and we seem to be fodder for assholes; it seems to be some sort of ritual amongst this cohort. DIfficult to try and unpick somes, but hang in there, the journey is worth it

    • I agree, you have to watch out for the Chairperson that is nice to you to your face and double crosses you during a review process. The two face academic asshole.

      • Several of us with the same advisor call this “being thrown under the bus.” The main focus of our feedback to each other (on our writing for her) is what we *shouldn’t* say if we want to avoid private scorn and public humiliation.

      • INDEED! I cannot even begin count the number of two-faced academic assholes in my field. Smiling at your face and then kicking you when you turn your back.

    • Often the faculty are performing for each other, not for the student: senior faculty want to demonstrate that they still have it, and junior faculty, regardless of gender, need to show the senior faculty that they are competent: the graduate student and the quality of her or his work is often irrelevant in these displays–just a vehicle for faculty ego and posturing.

    • This is such a valuable discussion. The AHs do not confine themselves to higher education; they are to be found in corporate and even nonprofit environments, too. Years ago when I took a course in cultural anthropology, I read a book about how people who “cut a tough deal” or took unfair advantage of others during a business transaction (I’m using very polite language for, essentially, screwing others) were held in esteem by their societies. In certain cultures (ours perhaps?), people who make more money or in other ways get ahead by mistreating others are respected for their audacity that’s perceived as saviness or smarts. More recently, a friend suggested a book, Snakes in Suits, that was written by a psychologist. We all need to be aware of these people and figure out how to deal with them without becoming one and the same.

  2. I personally think, it is a matter of domincance. Dominant people get into higher positions and are considered more competent. When you are neither on the top nor at the bottom you have a strong urge to prove dominance. Sadly, there is a trend to view aggression as a sign of dominance and many fall back on this kind of behavior because it is the easiest way.

    I am, however, personally convinced that there are ways to make strong statements, defend your point, and show your dominance without being an asshole. This could even be more efficient. I experienced that countering aggressive attempts with an emotionless rational response and maintaining high standards in manners, has a much stronger effect than responding aggressively. Being overly friendly in this situation, however, is not a good idea. You might either be perceived as mocking the other guy or being submissive. both are not favorable.

  3. Like coal and diamonds are both made of carbon, only one lets the light pass through, the other absorbs it. It might be just a fact of life that we all possess the asshole organ. Some of us are just unfortunately disfigured such that the organ has cropped up on our face. Still others appropriately use it to rid ourselves of waste. Asshollery applied appropriately is of use. To let the waste pass through, instead of collecting in our person, but I may be full of shit. (Clever enough?) :)

  4. I think there is a gendered element to this too – female academics are more likely to be the “nice” ones who do the emotional labour in departments (with both colleagues and students) and who get left behind in terms of hiring and promotion because they are seen (perhaps unconsciously) as less clever. So I see your goal of “breaking the circle of nastiness” as a feminist goal – it will empower people with very different, often more feminine, communication styles and thus combat these implicit biases.

    Thinking about it, this could also be a good strategy for promoting nicer behaviour; it has certainly been important to my own growing awareness about my unconscious gender biases against women (and I’m a woman myself!). In other words, we need to respect “feminine” communication styles and train ourselves away from our unconscious assumptions that these indicate some kind of weakness or deficit.

    • That’s interesting, but I would definitely say it depends on the field. In literary theory/philosophy, I have found female senior faculty members to be absolutely terrifying during presentations. I think that they have been brought up in a very male dominated field, and there’s this ingrained sense of wanting to show that they can “play with the boys” or something. The men in our department tend to sit back and relax – which does not mean that they are any less jerks than their female counterparts, they just don’t have as much to “prove” in the same way.
      Also, I think that we, as women, should really be aware of how we treat each other. Women can be absolutely destructive toward one another – particularly in male dominated fields – and I think we should work to change that.

    • I have to disagree – some of the worst ‘assholes’ as portrayed in this blog in my experience have been females, particularly young ones, often newly hired, very often about to be or already pregnant, and the snide comments that I have heard (less frequently in a public setting, more usually in a casual so-called ‘friendly’ setting) have been astounding. Just a thought to consider. I don’t think it’s a gender thing at all.

      • Just because ‘women’ use vitriolic language about one another (or others who do not identify as female) does not mean it’s NOT “a gender thing” — it’s more likely that the examples you bring up point to the fact that IT IS a gender thing. There are different types of communication styles into which females are socialized; one is of a more harmonious, balanced, and what we generally perceive to be ‘friendly’ nature, but the other is the all-too-common ‘bitchy’ commentator who speaks badly about others behind their backs.

        I agree with previous commentators that the issue is indeed a feminist one–and having attended some conferences that were predominantly organized and attended by women and were some of the safest, friendliest, and smartest environments I have been in only confirms my belief.

        Academia in general is very hostile to forms of communalization and cooperation and champions the rational individual (read: male), whether in communication styles, teaching, or publishing.

        But that doesn’t mean we can’t change it!

    • Biggest asshole I have ever encountered was the discussant of a close colleague’s research paper. She is known as the ‘IR Hulk’ in our department, because, well, you won’t like her when she’s angry. Which she never is, unless she’s discussing your work in public. She was nice and supportive in email exchanges prior to his presentation, giving the impression she thought his work was stimulating and original. When we all got in the room, things changed dramatically. She tore into him with a savagery I’ve not seen in even the most internecine conflicts – of which our department has had many. The objective was not critical but constructive engagement, but total destruction. Afterwards, as everyone trooped back down the corridor to recover in their offices with a pint of gin from the desk drawer, she was heard to remark loudly ‘I think, if I’m honest, he should just delete the whole fucking thing off his computer and start again’. I think your idea about women being ‘nicer’, and undertaking ‘emotional labour’ in departments isn’t necessarily that helpful here. In the course of my Dphil, I’ve been yelled at by one person – the second biggest asshole – who was my (female) Dphil convenor. This kind of standpoint feminism suggests (to me, and I my well be wrong) that you might be drawing on the unconscious patriarchy-derived biases which you acknowledge above. Perhaps that’s what female assholes are doing too – feeling that they have to be more aggressive and ‘macho’ to be taken seriously?

    • I agree on the idea that females are more abused oftentimes. I am just about to leave a job after 8 years of being the victim of a flaming asshole and the part-timers and staff colleagues he placed in the school (because nepotism/cronyism goes un-checked along with refusal to respond to my years of complaints to the administration about his mistreatment). The admin knows I am not crazy because I am not the only person to have left, citing his (and his posse’s) actions. They refuse to do anything because the flamer is a flamer in more ways than one, and I think they are afraid he will use his identity to launch some kind of counter claim–at least that is the only way I have ever managed to comprehend the failure for anyone to stand up for me. Clearly, I have lawsuit potential because I have documented, but it’s not my way to sue. I managed to get tenure, took the chairship (long story how I managed to pull that off, but it came immediately after my tenure and after he behaved very inappropriately in a search), and now I am leaving on my own terms–promotion to full professor and chairing a much larger and well developed program at a tier one institution. Living well is the best revenge, I guess. Then again, this whole thing is forcing my family to move half way across the country and leave a house we all really love. My husband does not yet have a job, so we will live apart until he does. He is up for a position at one of the satellite schools of the university 2 hours away, so, even if he does get a job, it may be that he lives away from us during the work week. I try not to wish that some divine force send a taste of his own medicine back on this colleague, but sometimes I do. I want him to be punished, just not by my hands. I just want to get out, and now, after watching what this experience has done to me, my husband supports the move. I have been so demoralized by the mobbing.

  5. We don’t have many assholes in my place, in the sense of people deliberately behaving like this. Those that are, operate in particular disciplines with a tradition of individualism and competition (law, business etc). There are quite a lot of less aggressive individuals though: the ruthless ones who operate a policy of total selfishness. They avoid teaching, and especially marking. They don’t sit on committees. They don’t do office hours for students and don’t participate in generating a research culture. Instead, they rely on us to do the work they consider beneath them, while churning out books and jetting off. They get the research funding and the respect from management. And they profess not to understand why the rest of us haven’t produced that book etc…

    I wonder if the ‘proper’ assholes are simply insecure. They see academic life as a competition they’ll lose if they don’t play dirty. No doubt those of us who don’t consider academia as a competitive arena are considered losers by those who do…

  6. Lets all find a nice uni to work at and all us nice people work there!!! Leave the arseholes to fester in other institutions!

  7. Although in general I agree with Anna, I have been treated badly by a senior (full professor) feminist academic at a feminist gathering (not just academics). It turned out afterwards (why yes, she came up and spoke to me afterwards as if she hadn’t just done that) that she thought I was a graduate student at the time (I was not).

    I found this thoroughly unacceptable. And given that most of the audience were not academics, it sorta backfired because a lot of women came up to me wondering who she was and what her problem was.

    The fact remains, this culture can infect even feminist academic circles.

  8. “it was most depressing when our fellow level Bs acted like jerks.” Yes! I’m a PhD candidate and have witnessed the most nastiness from my peers, directed at my peers. In particular, after one guy’s recent conference paper, a bunch of students ripped him to threads, both professionally and personally, during a private bitch session. I contributed what I thought were constructive observations – yes, the paper had weaknesses, but it also had real strengths – and left the conversation when the one upmanship of who could be more scathing continued. Before this incident I had no idea these people could be so mean, and about one of our own, no less. It certainly soured my view of academia. What had they said about my paper behind my back?

    Should I have stayed in the conversation and rebutted the others further? Perhaps. Maybe next time I’ll be able to say, “Hey, do you guys know the Thesis Whisperer? Because she has this blog post about niceness and…”

    • This.

      It’s happening so much among my research group I’m seriously considering quitting. Listening to them bitch about one another when someone isn’t there is depressing me. Not to mention all the condescending remarks they make to me. I don’t think they even realise how crap they make me feel, every time I try to bring it up they brush it off as just trying to help me.

  9. The flip to this is the too much niceness leading to a certain type of blandness where nothing of consequence happens because nobody wants to offend anyone else. Occasionally you need a loudmouth asshole to stand up and start kicking over tables.

    It’s balance surely?

    • When people are too timid to say what they really think for fear of offending, blandness can be the result. I see this sometimes at education conferences, which are very civilised. But I like to think there’s a happy medium. Some of the best seminars I have been to have had people who can critique by asking the right questions. Perhaps that is the key? Rather than kicking over tables?

      • I don’t literally mean “kick over tables” but anyone has worked in academic for any period of time have seen some really terrible ideas being carried forward because nobody was willing to simply say “That is a terrible idea, no”, then we all sit back and watch over six or twelve months as a slow moving car crash occurs.

        I wasn’t really thinking of seminars or that sort of thing but at the management level where decisions are made and courses are planned.

        Let me put a real world example out there – I was recently at a planning meeting where it was discussed that we should take over courses from department X. Someone mentioned about the staff coming over (who we all think are dreadful) and someone else said “Why do we want them? We all know the courses are failing because the staff are crap” – does that make them an asshole or just blunt because they said what we were all thinking but everyone was too polite to articulate?

      • This post is wonderful.

        I think you’re right about asking questions being an important way of critiquing without being outright nasty. And asking questions is a skill; one that I’m not sure many people practice consciously (maybe that’s part of the problem?)

      • Great post! But I have a question that’s from the other side: what do you do with a dumbass? By that I mean someone who isn’t very good at their job, tenured, and doesn’t respond to anything short of assholery?

    • every point can be raised in infinite variations. some of them assholic, some of them empowering. i prefer the latter, especially with students.

  10. I’ve worked in some places with assholes and some that have few….the difference between them is the places with fewer assholes (although everyone has a bad day once in a while) is there has been a culture not accepting this type of behaviour. It has always been nipped in the butt if anyone new showed this type of behaviour, but it requires a strong leader who is not afraid to enforce this culture…not sure if the same thing can be applied to academia just because the nature of academic debate

  11. Loved this blog and I can see what you are alluding to. I think we can all identify with what you are saying, and we have all experienced it. Hold on tight to what you believe in and who you are, I fervently believe it will hold you in good stead. Academia needs more honest, compassionate and good hearted people like you. I will sleep better tonight thanks to you.

    • Yes, I will sleep better tonight knowing that quite a few people have experienced the asshollery that thesiswhisperer alluded to. I went on a scholarship study tour and certain people were highly competitive, bitchy, nasty and would strike you down personally for your ideas. Thank goodness I am over it and moving on in my path. I was dealing with a guy that was sexually interested in me who I knocked down his offer aggressively and a mentally unstable woman, who being competitive, joined forces to tear down my architectural profile, I must admit, I was pretty ‘in your face’ to the guy who was incredibly rude.But never an asshole to anyone. I look back on my peers paths and find only a handful of people who are doing really well in the architectural world who are not assholes. God bless them.

    • Excellent article. I cannot believe I am not alone in this. How many times in academia and the workplace has the asshole factor been a problem I have encountered. Time and time again I see it. Well done in bringing it to the surface. Bullying or putting down others work because you view them as competition or for fear of rejection of your own work is absolutely unnacceptable behaviour in a humane society but not so in the architectural domain. I applaud those who rise above it.

  12. Brilliant. Thank you for posting this. I have often felt like this throughout my time as a PhD student. I am now in my final year and due to the assholery prevalent in academia, I now have no interest in continuing. I love research and my topic, but hate the aggressive and individualistic attitude that comes from academics and, unfortunately, other research students. I have been bullied by my supervisor, sent threatening emails by an academic from another university and been constantly told that “this is just how it is.” Sure, its wrong – but you are told if you want to be an academic, suck it up. And I choose not. It is just particularly unfortunate that this kind of attitude trickles down to the one place you expect to find support – in other students. Not all, admittedly, but there are certainly enough with giant heads walking around. And it seems, to get forward at least in my department, that this is necessary. And even more sadly is the fact I am not alone. This story has been told to me many times over by other students in other disciplines. I know of at least three students who never completed their PhD because of the bullying and unsupportive environment. As you said, goodbye to all the nice clever people. Hello assholes.

  13. This is great. I work in the marketing team in a university. I have also almost (almost almost!) finished a research masters. Academics can be particularly rude when dealing with people on ‘the other side’ of the university, but the frustrating reality is that we’re trying to promote the uni for everyone’s benefit. I find it frustrating when they treat me like I’m an idiot, presumably because they think I’m young and silly, and they don’t bother to find out anything about me. I actually ‘get’ what they’re talking about, I understand their concerns, and I’m trying to help, but people can be downright hostile when dealing with the marketing team. Not all, mind you, just enough to make my job occasionally more frustrating than it needs to be. Academics could benefit from broadening their perspective on universities.

  14. As a generally harsh speaker, I must say I chose to avoid a career in academia because I thought it would involve a lot of time being nice to people for non-technical reasons (i.e. you could say, I didn’t want to have to continuously pretend that I wasn’t an asshole). For better or for worse, I think of myself as a clever person who walked away form the academy. Perhaps not for the reasons you wrote about, however. :)

    • Thankyou for making that ‘clever’ decision. Arrogance and ego and having issues with ‘being nice for non-technical reasons’, are generally not conducive to good collaborations and a safe and healthy work environment ;)

  15. I think that this blog, and they types of forms of digital communication that is giving the opportunity for topics like this to be discussed in ways, and by people, that had not been able to before…is a big part of the puzzle to changing the academic culture. So you are already a big part of contributing to that change Thesis Whisperer.
    Another thing, as you said, is looking at reward for the right things, rather than this kind of behaviour. As you have said , this behaviour has not been (on the whole) a hindrance to ones career, the opposite even. Strange actually, when looking at it from an Australian culture only, this kind of nasty arrogance is not well tolerated or rewarded, tall poppy and all that. So how then did it survive in this industry? Because it became ‘safe space/home’ for those highly intelligent beings who were never allowed to do it ‘out there’/growing up, to show their hubris without fear of ramification….and this eventually became the dominant culture of the institution?
    Perhaps, as time goes on, and more ‘non traditional’ students become involved in academics, and move up the later with the aging academic population, by sheer numbers and different experiences/backgrounds/expectations, the culture will begin to organically change itself. Perhaps we just need another decade or two and more thesis whispers out there ‘lifting up, dusting off, and pushing on’ the down trodden of the academic world…and what a wonderful world it might become.

  16. Just entered a comment and lost it!

    Anyway — the gist of what I posted was that I agree with Kati, if you have an HOD willing to cultivate supportive behaviour you can overcome this. When I was at ANU there was a very very clear difference between the departments of my two supervisors. My 1st supervisor, who was HOD, deliberately cultivated supportive seminar and work environments. We actually had a workshop on asking questions in seminars, and one on giving feedback in writing. The one on asking questions, although I wasn’t there, was transformative. Basically, we were taught to prepare questions for every seminar, even if we didn’t get a chance to ask them, as a supportive gesture (nothing worse than no questions…). They could be things like ‘probing for more information’, ‘asking them to expand on a point they had to skip’, ‘assisting them to open their mind to a different perspective’ and so on — not just about pointing out weaknesses or showing off.

    In that department, people tended to give you any concerns about your research privately — eg. one older male colleague caught me in the tea room one day and pointed out that he enjoyed my paper but was concerned I had already decided what I was going to find in the field and may not be open to surprises. I was grateful he didn’t point this out in the seminar, but had commented only on how well prepared I was.

    The other department/research group I used to attend seminars at was scary. There was even a seating hierarchy, with level as, bs, and phd students around the wall and the big men (mostly men!) in the middle. The style of response was combative, and focused on highlighting weaknesses.

    I think the supportive environment helped me to be more creative and brave and daring in my work. It encouraged me to experiment, and encrouaged me to share my drafts early enough to have people shape my ideas, so it wasn’t just about defending my ideas on a draft I was already committed to. It helped me be a better writer. Much like a child brought up in a supportive attachment relaationship, my internal norm is thus self confident and expectant that people will be interested in what I am saying. My supervisor is reknowned as a critical thinker in our field, and not considered dumb at all. So I think it doesn’t necessarily follow jerks are considered more intellengent, unless you are not confident yourself and can get btaken in by their bravado.

    Phd students — we used to all support each other and go to each others seminars and ask the supportive questions above — eg you mentioned X, could you tell us more about that? so there was less time for the real jerks to perform their little dance. We also read each others first drafts before supervisors, so that the supervisor version was a second draft and thus clearer and better articulated and less likely to annoy them. We didn’t read to critique or find anything but the biggest holes, but reflected back to each otehr what we thought the chapter/piece was about so they could judge whether their message was coming across clearly.

    We can be part of changing this I reckon!!

  17. This just in: arseholes (I prefer the Australian vernacular) do better in all workplaces. Alpha personalities always push harder, step on others, barge through and have a confidence in their ability that is more valuable when it comes to getting ahead than actual ability.
    Sometimes, though, brilliance comes with a lack of social skills. It’s an unfortunate trade-off.

    • Thats assuming that all these ‘Australian vernacular’ individuals ARE brilliant…and not just well educated/privileged. The few Sheldon Coopers out there I think we all can forgive (and at times grow to love), and accept this ‘trade off’. But for the vast majority it’s not an acceptable trait. Dominance and Assertiveness is very different to just flat-out bitching/arsehole-ness for personal gain/self esteem. And it is not really ‘outwardly’ tolerated in any industry actually…borderlines on bullying even (though what goes on behind closed doors in private not directly to the individual is another matter), but it is in Academics? Why is that? Perhaps the debate is more…Is this a dysfunctional culture, or a liberated one?… I’m honestly not sure.

  18. I really enjoyed your article. Thanks so much for writing it. It’s great to see people talking about it and I really hope the culture does change. I spent 10 years working in a science institution and in the end, despite loving the science (and being good at it!!) I left – because I just couldn’t handle the assholes (and bullies) anymore. Leaving a permanent job in science was a tough decision, but it was the right one for me at the time. I’m taking a break from science at the moment and people ask me if I will go back to it – they know I love it – but I have to say – your article pretty much sums up the reasons why I hesitate to return. The negative culture is not much good for self-esteem – and mine certainly took a dive over the 10 years I was there! But I do think there are groups within each workplace that prefer the culture of niceness – so I guess the trick is just to find a good bunch to work with and focus on them. And I guess a big part of success is figuring out how to deal with the assholes as and when you have to. But it’s great to be able to keep interactions with them to a minimum!! Thanks again for your blog. Great stuff :)

    • I completely agree with you: find nice persons to work with, motivated from your intrinsic passion and interest for science. Yet I really wonder where are these people? I come from a highly competitive place where I did my dissertation (and yes with some real assholes walking around). Right now I am at place which is the complete opposite: no competetion whatsoever, all very very nice people, but oh so unmotivated to get something good done. I feel a bit desperate..I do not give up yet though. I still hope to build a circle of fellow researchers whose only motivation is to do good research.

  19. As someone else who works on ‘the other side’ of university work, I’ve also dealt with really bad behaviour on the part of academics. Years ago, when part of my job was to advise staff on copyright in their distance ed packages (how quaint that sounds!), I was screamed at more than once for explaining to people they couldn’t use published cartoons without permission (I didn’t make the rule, madam…). And yes, by women as well as men – once by a lecturer in feminist sociology, no less.
    Now that I’ve nearly finished a PhD I have much more confidence in dealing with these people, who really are below contempt, in my opinion. I am so professional in dealing with them, they have no idea how much they reveal when they change their attitude to me after discovering that I’m doing a PhD. I’ve had lots of practice!

  20. Are lay people allowed to comment? Because in my experience many if not most academics, seem to look down on the lowly general public. Discussion on The Conversation articles is a great in-print example. Anyone mentioning personal experience or views is usually shouted down by someone demanding an official study is vital to back up the opinion. It’s not possible or acceptable to have a view on anything, it would appear, unless there’s an official study to ‘prove’ it. Except that most of the public are these days cynical of studies proving this or that, given that so many are contradictory. It seems to me that there’s far more we don’t know that what we do; and that sometimes overly dramatic scare-monger type media releases are simply a way of drumming up more research funding (whilst eroding credibility in the eyes of the public). Yes arrogant rudeness can be seen as being part of the culture, but sometimes to me it seems like insecurity. Whatever the cause – this behaviour has been eroding public respect for scientists.

    • I take the view that if a person shouts that they’ve just demonstrated that they feel powerless and lack control….and they’ve really indicated how insecure they feel. It’s interesting to see people when you tell them that’s what shouting indicates about the person who’s doing the shouting. I started to do this and it works. They shut up.

  21. Thanks for a really interesting post on a really important topic. The most concrete thing we can do as individuals is to continue to model good behaviour – stating comments clearly and politely without avoiding critical thought. But I think there are some structural issues which feed this problem and can’t be addressed by individual action
    1) Academic posts are (and are seen to be) an elite privilege. We see them as a fabulous job that only a few can have – so competition is fierce
    2) the basis of that competition is not clear
    3) the value of the work (to wider society) is often unclear
    These things add up to make people feel immensely pressured to work every hour god sends, and to always worry that they aren’t clever enough or working hard enough. Stress often leads to bad behaviour

    Add to this the fact that management structures (and management skills) are weak and you have endemic stress which is not managed.

    These things exacerbate bad behaviour and lead to its reward

    • Excellent post. The structural issues that you so clearly describe are rarely discussed these days – the culture has shifted to blaming the individual for being unable to cope, hysterical, hyper-sensitive – and those categories are often gendered.

  22. This was such a fantastic read. I would like to comment that, after several years of graduate course work and quite a lot of conferences and talks (where the assholier-than-thou-ism is perhaps most acute) I have learned the value of calmly and quietly executing a one-sentence remark that leave the asshole in his/her place.
    The thing is, the world does not like assholes. And every time an asshole asks one of those horribly long-winded questions that seem (and, actually, probably are!) clever (though debatably well thought-out) the entire room becomes more attentive. And they aren’t thinking, “I wonder what interesting point will come out of this lively discussion” … what they are thinking is, “Whoa…BURN!!! How is s/he going to handle that one!?!” When I take questions from assholes now (whether they be my colleagues or senior professors in my field) I simply smile, look adequately bemused, enjoy the rest of the room noticing what a total asshole the question’s asker is, and say something dismissive to the effect of “That is a very interesting point/question. I look forward to talking with you further.”
    I could be wrong, but I honestly think that graciousness is more successful than being an asshole, and that the distinction between the two is immediately visible.

    • Unfortunately I usually come up with my witty one-liners long after I’ve left the event. But I agree, keeping calm in the face of aggressive questioning (or verbal abuse or bullying) by an arsehole is incredibly difficult but extremely important. Many arseholes I’ve witnessed actually have no desire to engage in a ‘discussion’, i.e. to listen to you respond or defend your position. Answering in a way that acknowledges the statement without engaging in what could quickly become a shouting match is a good strategy.

      • I really enjoyed this perceptive article – and clearly these are issues that affect many people and I realize that I am not alone in carrying the wounds of ‘assholery’ (great word!) Sometimes the AH commenter is not really all that clever – they just want to be noticed and heard, and to show off how clever they think they are, and sometimes they affect a hideously patronizing tone because it makes them feel important. One effective response that I have used in the past is to congratulate them on being so clever – seems to do the trick!

  23. Most of the professors who teach at my university are incredibly nice to each other, students and colleagues as long as those people are polite as well. They can discuss their ideas in a respectful and mature way. I have to say I have never felt uneasy with anyone working in this department, except maybe one or two impatient persons.

    When professors here seem to have more trouble communicating is when they face profund disagreements about how to manage the departement, classes and other activities. I’ve also noticed that there are ”crews” of professors who stick together, sometimes avoiding contact with people from the other side. I find this behaviour peculiar and a bit sad, but then again every office has its gossiping and backstabing problems.

    Also, I’ve noticed that on occasion, some professors can be a bit condescending with students that they think aren’t quite smart enough or simply don’t get anthropology. And to be frank, I can be that way too sometimes, even though I try to not be so judgemental and avoid letting it transpire in the way I treat people. I guess when we are passionnate about what we do, we want to protect it from people who could mistreat it, or take grants away that we feel we deserve more than they do.

    In the end, the competition between academics probably generates a lot of the bad attitudes we face. Collaborative research can be a great way to avoid this, and can lead to fantastic projects and publications.

  24. Excellent post, thank you! First off, it should be reiterated that offering critique and being critical are two different things, the latter which is generally unproductive. Second, one issue with research is that mentors all too infrequently are good teachers. They are simply researchers. To truly mentor a student well necessitates talent both in research capacity and teaching. These students often go on to be crappy teachers themselves, perpetuating a learned cycle. I’ve experienced this personally in my PhD but this has had the opposite effect and made me determined to never treat my students as I was treated. As far as improving the state of things, I wish that all mentors were required to take some classes in Learning Theory and teaching techniques. They are, after all, SUPPOSED to be teaching, no?

  25. I think the only thing that can be done is this – ‘nice’* people need to stop confusing being assertive and standing up for themselves with being arseholes.

    Stop being nice. Be _good_. It’s far more difficult, but yields greater rewards. Make sure that everyone around you knows it’s unacceptable to be an arsehole. Then start forming movements anf groups with other non-arseholes. Be proud of who you are, and makes sure people know it. After a while, they’ll see that collaboration and decency yields far greater results for the group, if not the individuals themselves (although that can be the case, too!).

    Don’t expect arseholes to change themselves. We have to change them, either by ignoring them, or by making it clear that their behaviour is only going to make their situation worse. Many people, after an initial adjustment period, will probably be delighted :)

    * Such a terrible term. Perhaps use ‘decent’, or ‘kind’, or good’ instead. Nice is so insipid :P

    • Love this! Yes, not being ‘nice’–nice girls don’t make history–but being decent, kind, good, cooperative and honest. A good person will tell you honestly when your writing needs work, in a way that helps you make it better. A good person will point out the flagrant weakness in your writing, in a way that enables you to find a way through. A good person will take you to one side and tell you you are being a jerk. I’m all for more circles of this kind of ‘nice’ (and for more nice people getting good jobs!)

      • Yes, needs this kind of understanding of what both supportive and critical cultures are and how they relate to each other. The flipside of the arsehole is probably the massage circle, neither of which seem particularly enabling for significant critical engagement with the world around. Something that has kind of interested me is how academic cultures have evolved over time in this respect and why, particularly since the 1960s?

      • This is a great point, and if I could add, it does take two – that is the receiver needs to understand that it’s their work that is under discussion and not them personally. Being a good, cooperative and assertive colleague assumes that they’re willing to help you but also to accept that they need help to.

  26. I have experienced one technique for minimising assholery and potentially increasing supportive and constructive critique in a discussion group of post grads that is facilitated by a senior academic who got the job of enhancing the research culture in a particular school has two rules. Rule one no remark is stupid. Rule two what is said in the room (or emailed to the list) stays there unless specific permission is given to take it outside. So no one can put down a junior person who asks a question that shows ignorance, nor can they say ‘what a stupid comment’. If the comment is factually wrong or can be disputed, the correction or counter argument must be put in civil terms. No one needs fear that their revealing a research problem/error of practice/human weakness will harm their reputation. These rules are re-iterated at intervals. So far, the group is working. Discussions are lively, and arguments occur, but to the best of my knowledge no one has ever left a meeting to cry quietly in the toilet , and many have left saying ‘oh I learned a lot’) or the equivalent. My guess is that the group tradition is now strong enough for it to work even without the power of the senior academic who initiated it. I think that anyone who acted uncivilly would feel the weight of group displeasure and cease and desist promptly, Assholes probably sit through one meeting fuming inwardly and never come back.

  27. thanks for this! I get pretty tired of being interrupted by my supervisor. if i want to speak in a meeting, i may have to speak even when he is already speaking. I think he’s oblivious about it, probably because colleagues and others have not called him out! he does it to others but I also think it is made a bit worse by my being a young woman and an academic ‘junior’. I am preparing some lines like ‘let me finish’, ‘don’t interrupt me’, and if needed ‘if you interrupt me again I’m going to leave’.

    • Hi! You may find these are better (less confrontational and critical, more about helping him hear what you have to say), ‘sorry, I haven’t finished speaking'; ‘it might help if you hear the end of my thought’ and ‘could I get to the end of this sentence before you respond?’
      Make sure your tone of voice is neutral, so he responds to the content of the words rather than the hurt or anger in your voice.
      If that doesn’t work (though mostly it will), certainly move on to your other lines!

  28. there also seems to be a culture among some professional women where they found it was hard for them starting out, and they want to make it hard for young women they supervise now. not just in acadmia. very sad!

  29. Great article that makes a lot of sense to me. I have not been on the receiving end of any assholery (fortunately), but I wonder if I have been seduced by it in the past. When someone comes across as confidently dismissive of an idea, my first response is not “gee what an asshole” but more “wow what have they seen that I missed?”. I wonder how many times I’ve fallen into that trap.

    Having said that, I’ve seen a lot of ‘niceness’ in my professional life (museums) and I think we’re actually pretty bad at criticising each other’s work. We know how much effort and compromise goes into putting an exhibition together, so we tend to give each other a bit of a free pass. But it also means an emperor can go for a very long walk naked befofre anyone says anything.

  30. Great post, Inger! The academics and my supervisors are all very nice people. That said, I am sure there are some of those people lurking around where they work. There are definitely one or two of the above described people within the PhD students anyway. They start “young”. Having to deal with such people has been worse than having to deal with office politics when I was working!

  31. Australian ‘academics’ really have nothing to be arrogant about, they are usually uneducated in modern and real world issues and small minded people with have little importance to the rest of the universal academic world. They produce nothing, can’t teach and the ‘thinking’ is often out-dated, backwards and irrelevant, so what’s with all the arrogance? Or is it actually insecurity? A life wasted in academia and nothing to show for it? I guess I’d be bitter and insecure as well. Higher education in Australia is a joke and nothing more than a Tafe/Jr collage experience. Save your time, money and brain energy and study in a real county with real universities and real Ph’d professors. A kangaroo on a pogo stick will go father then any Australian ‘academic’.

  32. Thankyou so much for articulating a notion I have long observed. Academic arseholery was a phenomenon I observed even before I was awarded my PhD, but the people who stood out were all above such behavior. They represented a generous demeanor and a genuine pursuit of knowledge. At a time when student retention is a crucial aspect of modern tertiary education, we are being asked to reconsider our attitude to students. Why then must we tolerate adverse behavior from our peers and academic mentors? Fortunately, as a practitioner turned academic, I had been well trained to cope with such bad behavior within the film industry. Thanks so much for your post.

  33. I’m 40 something, quite senior, UK based. I used to come across these types quite a lot – but now hardly at all. I remember being snubbed, quite appallingly, by an early career but established academic at a conference as a postgrad. As I type other similar examples, from older, established people come into my head. I’m not even sure whether they *meant* to be horrible – it was more like a reflex of spikey hauteur. However there is something quite bracing about being challenged in, say, a research seminar – doesn’t have to be remotely nasty – as Regan implies, there is a disadvantage in being just blandly nice in all contexts. But – most of the time niceness is definitely a good thing!

  34. My one reservation is that you should think that this behaviour is only found within academic circles whereas, sadly, I have found it to be a given in most circles of life.

  35. I’m a senior academic and one of the more depressing aspects of my situation is that I reckon I spend at least 50% of my time evaluating people: reviewing papers, reviewing grants, writing job references, examining theses. My point is, if you are in academia, you and your ideas are going to be evaluated ALL THE TIME. I am concerned that you and colleagues regard someone as an arsehole for “criticising their opinions in public, at a conference or in a seminar”. The appropriate response to that is to respond to the criticism. If it has value, take it on board and make sure you shore up your arguments to defend against it next time. If it does not have value, ARGUE BACK. Yes, there are nicer and nastier ways of criticising someone’s work, and we’ve all experienced the smartarse who enjoys scoring points off people to show how clever they are. And in many areas, there is extreme competition for academic jobs that can make people pretty ruthless in pushing themselves forward. But people like that aren’t going to go away, and you have to just learn to deal with them – and to realise that criticism of your ideas is not the same thing as personal attack. I’ve been involved in mock interviews of candidates for fellowships – we ask incredibly tough questions because we know that’s what they candidates will get in the real interview. It really helps if they have already learned to defend themselves at seminars/conferences. At the end of the day, if your ideas are any good, they will survive criticism.
    Some of these issues cropped up in comments on my blogpost about asking questions in seminars: http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/cmon-sisters-speak-out.html. My view is that those who ask difficult questions can be doing you a favour: we have all experienced the weak seminar where nobody likes to say anything in case they upset the speaker – who then continues cheerfully doing work that has basic flaws which are not picked up until PhD examiners or journal referees home in on them.
    (With apologies for being critical! It is not meant in a hostile fashion, and I do try not to be an arsehole in daily interactions with colleagues)

    • I agree – one has to learn not to take critique too personally. And not to give it too personally too. I have had so little exposure to people who do it well that it’s hard to learn the tricks. One thing I have noticed is that some people can ask really great, non confrontational, searching questions which are helpful – and then offer their opinion after that. I think that works well because it offers the person who is presenting a chance to self diagnose a problem and then work with the questioner and the audience to find solutions. I enjoy watching this sort of talk in action – unfortunately it’s all too rare. I haven’t quite got the knack of it myself, but I am working on that being my style.

  36. Hi, I like your ideas and like what it is trying to do, but there is something that -to my understanding- the article (and the study cited) fails to address or respond to: the fact that indeed there may be an actual (i.e. objective) correlation between cleverness and rudeness. The fact that the controlled experiment found that we tend to assume (being biased) that rude people are cleverer than nicer people does not disprove the fact that perhaps this bias has come about by an actual correlation between rudeness and cleverness. Correct me if I am wrong :-)

      • Ahhh..when I find the time I would love to. But my aporia is more of a “historical” one. Also I wouldn’t want to invest time in providing justification for impolite assholes continue being assholes. I assume ways of interaction can change, without reference to an (historical) objective correlation between cleverness and…assholeness… I’ll join the Circle of Niceness. :o)

  37. Interesting post and interesting comments!

    Here’s another aspect of the asshole culture sometimes emerging in academia: the asshole paper. In my experience there are two forms of this:
    1) “I am clever, but you aren’t” – The author of the paper really does not want to communicate ideas to you as a reader (other than showcasing his/her intelligence and superiority) and therefore uses a whole lot of unnecessarily complicated sentences and words. Every second paragraph needs to contain jargon like ontology or epistemological. I’ve seen many of these papers – especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences – and am increasingly sick of them. I am in a position now where I can afford to ignore them or see them for what they are: a piece of arrogance or assholery. But as a graduate student I was dead scared, because they made me feel I’m just not intelligent enough to understand and appreciate their wonderful thoughts. Impostor syndrome – hello!
    2) “I know how to do this, but these other guys don’t” – Papers that discredit other people’s research to make their own look better or to support their own argument. I’ve seen a prime example just this week, where a paper cited one of my journal articles with the words “Most contemporary efforts to understand A employ concept B as a fairly blunt proxy for the subtle ways in which [it really works] (authors A, B, C and D)”. The only difference between their approach and my approach is that we look at different phenomena – that should be completely fine, right?

    I am well aware that increasing pressures on public funding force academics increasingly to prove their value. Journal papers are one way to show this and often journals will only accept research that shows how different and unique and groundbreaking it is.
    The kind of evaluation of research we have in the UK (Research Excellence Framework REF) certainly doesn’t help this problem either. Here a good portion of public funding is allocated according to perceived research excellence as evaluated by peer-review. So an expert panel is reading 4 papers per academic (across the whole of the UK within a field) and then judges the quality of their output. In the last exercise the panel in my field of research had 7 minutes to judge each paper, so the real art was to manage to submit a paper to a journal that uses strong words (i.e. I have done this great stuff and no one else has ever thought of this before…) and get it accepted, so that the panel can see how great you are in less than 7 minutes. Subtlety, niceness and honestly appreciating other peoples’ efforts suddenly become less of a priority.

  38. We need more people to speak up about this. I have come from an institution that was toxic because this behaviour spread down from the very top. And yes, decent people left if they could. I was protected for a while by a good HoD but that couldn’t last.

    A new Dean came in, and as I said to him when I left: you are the only member of senior management who has ever said “thank you” to me.

    I am now in another institution that values people rather differently, and I am setting out to make sure my people know that being an ass will *not* get you promoted/

  39. So so true! I have been bullied out of a career in academia thanks to assholery behaviour by my colleagues, peers, and immediate seniors – yes public humiliation at seminars, work rubbished, ‘ that’s how it is’ attitude and worst of all the patronising – ‘you don’t understand the science, peer review, standing on the shoulders of giants’ etc etc. A concerted group bullying exercise which the assholse won hands down. I can see its not about intellectual enquiry at all – its about one-upmanship, backbiting and refusal to engage in intelligent debate at all, ever – because it will just show up a lack of intelligence. I’ve seen people all blindly following what is funded – despite a growing awareness that this is a blind alley, and publishing – and that’s success. Its hard not to be bitter but the one thing that I can’t avoid is that I have always been intellectually honest – I could be no other way. To have that rejected in favour of the assholes – well its just sad for academia.

    • A concerted campaign against a colleague is likely more than assholery; it’s probably part of the machinations of a malignant narcissist.

      When the chairmanship of my department (of biology) was becoming open, another faculty member encouraged a third faculty member (who happened to be leaving our institution for another job and so was immune from retribution) to attack one of my Master’s students during his public presentation of his research results. The criticisms were baseless, and my student easily pointed out why that was so; but the “hit man” continued to berate my student over and over with the same accusation of having a flawed research design. That went on for over twenty minutes until the student finally refused to address the “hit man” further.

      As of today, the paper that my student and I published on our research has 55 citations on Google Scholar. A paper published the same year and coauthored by the “hit man” and the faculty member who encouraged him has been cited 52 times.

      I knew at the time that this episode was intended as a warning to me that, were I to become departmental chairman, the “godfather faculty member” would try to undermine me and make my job difficult. The next year he became department head (not chairman) and has held on to power tenaciously for 25+ years.

      “This is down in the swampland, anything goes
      It’s alligator bait and the bars don’t close
      It’s the real thing down in Louisiana”

      Did I care? No, but all my options are still open.

      “Leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight
      It’s just an ordinary story ’bout the way things go”

  40. Great topic! I was long ago thrown out of what had seemed a promising academic career by a whole crowd of assholes. I was far too “nice”, but I was young & naive and they had me apologising for teaching stuff I knew was good, true and worthwhile because they had an anti-intellectual culture surrounding my field of expertise. Their trick was to make my position tenurable, but to change the job description and essential requirements so that I couldn’t fulfil them any more! How clever! Why they hired me in the first place I never quite figured out. Anyway, they have all prospered, received professorships and traveled to proselytize to the foreign masses while I have fallen gradually in salary until now I get nothing at all and will retire on the pension in 6 more years. All due to assholes. Quite a few sociopaths have crossed my path as well, but they’re another story.

  41. Bang on! This gave me memories of a tenured faculty member (a.k.a academic asshole) in another department who got wind of my research and tried to sabotage it. How? They sat on the external IRB for the organization I applied to for fieldwork. I became a savvy Grad student that day!
    Thanks for this post!!!!

  42. Very interesting post! Yes, bullying is rife in academia unfortunately. I’m like you. I’m seen as nice and a team-player, but found recently that it isn’t smart to out-do your colleagues with publications and finding external relationships and funding. I was doing what I thought was best for my university, but then had to deal with attacks and undermining from my line manager. Ultimately, after getting ill from stress, I had to resign. I took my publications with me though, and they lost a much-needed REF contribution. Before this post, I had twenty years at a different institution, in a different country, and had the most wonderful and supportive colleagues and administrators. I miss them! But now sadly, I’ve been forced out of the career I loved and which I was good at.

  43. I’ve got on pretty well career-wise without being an asshole (Reader, 7 years out of my PhD) but have found that to get enough power to defeat the assholes, you have to become one yourself, so I’ve used all my career brownie-points to get a position at a University renowned for its friendliness in an asshole-free department – yes it is actually possible though rare – and I now love my job more than I ever have before.

    • And I think you comment shores up my suspicion – many men suffer through asshole behaviour in much the same way as many women do. I’m not convinced that the gender dimension provides us with enough explanations and tools for change. It’s tempting to make this a gender / class / raced issue – but I’m inclined to think there’s more too it than that. Many men would prefer to act in ways marked with generosity and kindness – and, like you point out, will seek environments where that approach is supported. If these qualities are privileged in recruitment maybe we would see some real change? Definitely another few posts in this!

      • Correct. men cop it from arseholes and are targetted by bullies/sociopaths, too, and the less self-promoting, more cooperatively inclined ones are kept down or driven out in consequence. There is a gender bias, but this is predominantly a power/politics/reputational issue.

    • I have reviewed some of your papers for LDD and they were very nice.
      Our field is generally not too bad. You do get a few scientist types who just don’t listen to others, because they are not used to doing so. The usual stuff – trying to escape from teching and marking (when it is the thing that pays the bills, rather than research which usually costs) do occur.
      My career has been significantly curtailed by being pleasant to people, helping out students, and pulling my weight. I ran a program for 4 years, which has made chances of promotion remote. If I have a general observation it is that the nasty people tend to be insecure in some way – very clever, but insecure and thus competitive. We talked in management training about how to ‘corral’ them – don’t let them loose or with too much power. Difficulty I have is that three of them at my university clearly controvene our bullying policy, almost on a daily basis. But the university takes no action against senior people with grants. If I was the VC I would sack them under due process.

  44. What is being described in this blog entry is similar to something that is apparent among lawyers and judges. Usually senior law partners and senior higher court judges are nicer and more flexible in some ways that their colleagues because they have already achieved the status they were competing for. Status issues dominate most people’s lives despite pretensions to the contrary. In fact, they dominate so much that reality or content of arguments are secondary to the goal of successfully jockeying for status by any means necessary. So for example, if someone is not delivering the total social package in this respect (which includes the confidence to be rude, belonging to the right social culture and networks, and delivering politically desirable crypto propaganda within an ‘academic’ paper or oral argument) they will be punished and the sociopathic academics will become especially motivated to produce sophisticated justifications to diminish what would otherwise be well received. The biggest cult in this respect is that of philosophy departments which pretend to offer something valuable that is distinguishable from other departments for…special reasons. However, since ‘philosophy’ today is in fact a meaningless term and phil students are often taking courses in poli sci and soc, the cultic effectiveness has decreased because recent students are forced to interrogate themselves about whether their profs and the phil dept in general may be little more than a racist cult that is grasping at straws to continue to justify its existence. It is so obvious that they have to now have elaborate conversations about it so as to avoid doing what is rational: shedding the pretensions of ‘philosophy’ as a separate discipline and admitting that it is no more than the extension of racist pretensions to greatness that have been exposed as fraudulent for decades now.

  45. I realized that this will be scoffed at but do away with the special term “faculty” and call *everyone* on payroll “staff”. Also, abandon tenure. These two concepts create the incentives to be an asshole.

    I’m not trolling; I genuinely believe that the organizational structure and incentive scheme of academia encourages bullying to achieve the various special statuses.

  46. Reminds me of meeting one of the big names in my field. Had dinner with him at a conference and he was rude, mean and racist. But he was an exception – the majority of the academics I meet seem to be nice enough.

  47. The post-sec culture is competitive–everyone fighting over research dollars–which leads to people spending their time, intelligence, and creativity undercutting others instead of getting something constructive done. At the risk of sounding 1960’s retro, let me just suggest: CHANGE THE SYSTEM.

  48. Hell, yes. Been there. Been beaten up, humiliated and had my department stolen from my by an institutionalised bully. But, I moved on and am happy where I am, 100 miles away!

  49. I ABSOLUTELY LOVE this post, Inger. more than gold!

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  50. Oh how I relate to this! I’m a PhD candidate in one of the humanities department of a uni and I’ve just made a decision to resign from an important representative post, and give up my working area in a shared office to work from home instead.

    After a year of being belittled and dismissed by one female colleague in particular for no apparent reason, observing the snide and critical culture of some academic circles and the shoulder-shrugging attitude of those around me towards the bullying, enough was enough. I must say, I do not think I went in with overly idealistic expectations for academia, but my opinion of it has nonetheless soured due to my experience.

    This year I made the decision to no longer actively pursue my research and publication track record, and look for another career option. Thankfully I do have work experience outside the academy which allows me to do this.

    That said, many of the older academics I have met have been absolutely lovely and generous, real role models and mentors. How do I explain this? I can’t. Something to consider though.

  51. I have to say that this assholery is also present outside academia – especially in the public service. Bullying, sociopathic behaviour, general nastiness and cliques of self-congratulatory senior staff all jockeying for position.

    I am a new PhD candidate hoping that 7 years of this thoroughly nasty behaviour helps me to better manage what horrors may await me in academia.

    • Arseholery is most effective in environments where competence is harder to judge by concrete means: academia, the public service and large corporations.

      It is also effective when selling a product to an audience who doesn’t understand the product e.g. politicians selling policies to voters. In these situations you have to rely on your perception of the speaker’s competence, which is influenced by your perception of their dominance/arseholery.

      In the real world, people can tell whether you’re good at your job, so being nice or an arsehole won’t help you get by.

      E.g. in professional football you can be an arsehole or nice, but at the end of the day the question is how well you performed on the field.

  52. Thank you for this great post. It says something that has needed to be said for a long time.
    I experienced uncalled-for harsh criticism during my PhD, whilst during my first post-doc, it was an under-current that I was aware of in the department, without personally experiencing it (at least not to my face). During that time, I experienced a good friend being continually cut-down by her PhD supervisor, who was an expert in what you have termed ‘nasty cleverness’. I left academia after that postdoc, partly because of the competitiveness within the department and the general impression I was given, that I was not good enough.
    Something which goes hand-in-hand with this nastiness is the requirement, in academia, to work excessively and compromise one’s lifestyle, which I am no longer prepared to do. Why, in some departments at least, are researchers only considered successful or dedicated if they work weekends and evenings? Are people with well-balanced lives, a functional relationship perhaps, hobbies and other interests besides their own research, not valued in the academic sphere?
    Many thanks for this insight and here’s hoping we can work towards more niceness, openness and collaboration in research!

  53. I didn’t read every comment, but I’m not sure anyone has mentioned a helpful factor. High pay and status in academics often involves either being hired away by a school looking for a senior person, or getting an external offer that makes your current job pay you more. In some fields, being an asshole is no barrier to this, but in many it is: the external department may not want to bring in someone who is an asshole.

    • That’s a good point you make. There’s a famous case doing the rounds of an experienced academic who nobody wants to employ because of the havoc he causes in departments. He is a grade A asshole, can’t help himself but the chickens came home to roost eventually. He currently has a position, but his choices will be limited in the future.

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  55. Awesome! I quit attending a particular association’s conference, stopped associating with certain scholars, because of these issues. I really wish I understood why this type of culture exists in the academy. Thank you for your thoughts!

  56. Often I dwell on the disadvantages of entering academia in a later life stage (and from a lower socioeconomic class) than most of my peers. My life is more complicated and my attention is more divided, and those things affect my career trajectory. But one advantage to coming at this with more life experience is that I’m not as psychologically affected by asshole behaviour as the younger members of my cohort, most or all of whose adult life has been spent in and around the academy. I’m not tempted to be an asshole to try to impress people with my intelligence, and I’m not very intimidated by academic assholery, which seems more childish than threatening to me. Also, I’ve been far enough around the block to realize that most people who behave like assholes aren’t very happy. I’m a nice person, and it’s worked pretty well for me so far.

  57. I think this is a fabulous analysis of the influences stimulating and reinforcing violence in one of its many forms. WE see these patterns in many more contexts and forms than the ones described here, but you have provided a brilliant and cogent analysis of the paradigm, and for that I’m grateful. I recently thought about violence as the result of a high energy system being hit with a stimulus that causes release of all the energy (an explosion). This metaphor makes me wonder why we don’t actually have much more violence than we do? I find it amazing that we survive at all. Thanks for your wise comments! :)

  58. Phd students may be interested to hear that the the concept of ‘interactional justice’ (perceived politeness and respect from authority figures) emerged from phd students’ accounts of the disrespect shown by their supervisors!
    See p29

    http://books.google.com.au/books?id=aAEhYQp4wtgC&pg=PA29&lpg=PA29&dq=bies+interactional+justice+origins+phd&source=bl&ots=T-UiOGkKt3&sig=KZ0EaySJ0CUgAs4iBfwNDRDA_Fw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MVYfUejlKYvdkgWG4oDQDA&ved=0CEUQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=bies%20interactional%20justice%20origins%20phd&f=false

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  60. Having had to endure a few of these sociopaths at various multiversities, especially at Cambridge and Oxford high tables for some reason, I decidex that my very bright but also sweet natured and well mannered children had to be “jerk proofed.”

    I taught them that when they find themselves in the presence of an intellectual bully they must be thoughtful for a moment…then look deep into the person’s eyes, smile sweetly and say calmly vlearly and with dripping “admiration”: ” Wow, it must be WONDERFUL to know everything!….”

    In my experience all those around find this mist amusing and instructive. Whether the insecure bully does or not is not always so clear.

    And in the presence of such human excretia, those around should slways defend the weaker, younger and better mannered …with controlled ferocity and wit……down with intellectual bullying!! Up with courtesy, encouragement and humility…

  61. Sadly, this is the world. Being a jerk has NOTHING to do with being an academic, or not….

    Yes, a lot of professors, teachers, and so on, are jerks. Well educated jerks, but jerks none-the-less. “Oh, look at meeee, I have a Doctorate Degree. Therefore I am better than theee!” (It seems to matter not whether the “theee” has a doctorate degree or not.)

    But this sort of stuff happens in the business world, too. And in Politics? Shudder!

    The only way to fight it, is to decide NOT to be a Jerk! To BE a good person. To not be the “superior, jargon spouting, lording it over you type”. It is possible to be a nice person. Although sometimes, in today’s world, it is not easy!

    Hang in there. If you wish to be good/nice, you can be. And as for those who do not wish to be good/nice… well, bad Karma take the hindmost.

  62. When there is no immediate and significant negative consequence to being an asshole — a sound beating, for example — then asshole behavior will be tolerated or even rewarded.

    Tired of assholes? Punch ‘em in the throat and then kick them when they’re down. Figuratively if you must, but literally if you get the chance.

    Or play their passive-aggressive games from a systemic position of weakness, and keep crying yourself to sleep.

  63. Thank you for posting this. This really helps students relate about the rationale about why the academics treat research students so badly at times… This post is a remedy for those students who have been scarred as a result of this nasty academic assholery..and have suffered a delay in the careers because some academic was keen on using the student as a punching bag t inflate their public image. Academmics should be kept clean from infections lke this.

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  66. Well this certainly explains a lot! Especially the backhanded bullying that occurs when actively trying to exclude some students from certain experiences!

  67. There is another issue that isn’t disentangled here. And, let me preface by saying that there ARE honest to goodness assholes around (and that I’ve even been guilty of being one, on hopefully ever diminishing numbers of occasions). This issue is that some people, whether themselves assholes or nice, brilliant or not so much, do not separate his/her senses of self from the truthfulness of his/her opinions/arguments. That is to say, if you tell them “your idea is wrong,” they hear “you’re an unworthy human being” and think “that person is an asshole.” This isn’t *that* surprising — the conflation of the two is completely normal in extra-academic settings. But I take this to be something you ARE supposed to learn in academia. When the authors of this piece say “Jerks step on, belittle or otherwise sabotage their academic colleagues. The most common method is by criticising their opinions in public, at a conference or in a seminar and by trash talking them in private.” for instance, I was brought up short. Criticizing someone’s opinion in public, in a conference, or in a seminar is NOT being a jerk or sabatoging someone. Trash talking them in private is. These things shouldn’t be run together. This point was hammered home to me in the move from philosophy departments, where full frontal criticism is de rigeur (you could also argue, without too much exaggeration, that assholery was too), to anthropology, where criticizing someone’s ideas in public is literally impossible — leading to backroom criticism that thus shades into trash talking. Ending as I began: this isn’t to say that assholery doesn’t exist in academia, and in spades. But I worry that many very nice people, who deserve very many very nice things on account of being so very nice, also have trouble distinguishing assholery from the critical culture of discourse of scholarship, and that serves no one.

    Reading all these comments has me at a loss. I’ve never felt like the academic environment around me is poisonous. Which leaves me with the question: Is it either that 1) all these people are in much much much more poisonous academic environments than I have ever seen or 2) I am almost completely impervious to assholery or 3) they don’t know how to separate the value of their selves from the correctness of their ideas?

  68. I think there’s a tremendous disconnect between those for whom work is the sole source of meaning in their life and those for whom work is a means to other ends (i.e. to support a family, hobbies, interests).

    I think you’ll find that for the assholes, their career is basically all they live for, and doing the most/best work possible is the only thing that matters. Personal feelings be damned, that harsh criticism is the most direct way to achieve the best work being done.

    For non-assholes, happiness is more important than productivity/prestige, and nastiness of colleagues is only an impediment to that happiness.

    Of course, it’s the asshole/workaholic that sets the culture of our departments and universities, because they’re the most productive/successful.

  69. Not often my experience (but certainly familiar): perhaps I have been lucky (mostly), perhaps just too ‘nice’ to notice, or even perhaps just been ‘nasty’ without knowing it!!! ‘Circle of niceness’ all sounds good, but there is also the danger of slipping into a mode where in fear of appearing politically (read nice-academically) incorrect, we end up censoring each other and abstracting genuine critical exchange. But thanks for a very interesting and unsettling certain taken-for-granted behaviour by generating this debate!

  70. Thanks for this. I think the point you make about your blog is really interesting – I imagine the blogosphere (and perhaps Twitter as well) is full of academics who feel the urge to share their ideas but don’t want to get into pissing contests in ‘real time’. That’s certainly the case for me and I’ve sometimes wondered if my activity on social media is a cowardly retreat from sharing my ideas in more conventional contexts – but reading your post makes me realise that it’s probably quite sensible and potentially more productive than trying to be heard over the narcissism and bickering that often characterises academic conferences, for example. Food for thought!

  71. I think “assholes” and their subsequent success are a by product of three unfortunate aspects to academia.

    1. It is by nature a competitive discipline. We are competing for book contracts, journal publications, and the competition for funding and jobs is the absolute worst. Many times, the competition starts in grad school as grad students must vie against each other every year to retain their funding. My department specifically cultivated a culture of congeniality in the hope of producer “nicer” yet formidable academics, yet I firmly believe this was only enabled by the fact that our funding was contingent on teaching, which there was plenty of. This competitiveness can turn nice people into rotten sons of bitches.

    2. Assholes speak their mind! They are more likely to say no to things like extra committee work, and frankly often committee members do not want them on hand precisely because they speak their minds. This gives them more time to do research, which is really what elevates us in our field.

    3. As much as we would like to separate ourselves from our work, it is highly personal. Criticism for our work feels like criticism for who we are as people. In protecting our work, and thereby ourselves, we can sometimes come off as the worst people ever. Unfortunately academia can become our lives considering the hours we have to work. That is why for myself I try to realize that this, at its core, just a job. And even it means less sleep, I need to find other meaningful things in my life.

    These are just some of my two cents.

    • Constructive criticism should not be equated with, nor interpreted as behavior of the ‘asshole’ class. However, I have known and worked with several academics that have destroyed careers of undeserving young scientists, brazenly discriminate against research staff, post-docs and graduate students because of race and gender, repeatedly humiliate graduate students during seminars and presentations, covertly attempt terminate a lab manager because of a hazard condition in the department (which prompted a lawsuit), department heads that ignore university regulations of nepotism, etc.
      I could continue with examples from 28 years in academic halls and three universities. Only one of these institutions, a small university, had a credible and effective process for grievances. The other two institutions had sham committees. Speaking openly meant being blacklisted.
      In the past four years I have seen too many young and bright scientists leave academia, and am now seeing a flood of older scientists flee, some jaded and bitter. I left last year without looking back.

  72. I really really appreciated this entry. Thank you.

    I think it’s very challenging in academia to fine the balance between being kind and critiquing work. As a PhD student, I genuinely want to improve my own work, and I appreciate feedback; however, when that feedback is given too abruptly or phrased too arrogantly, I don’t find it helpful.

    I believe we can be successful and still be kind to one another, but I guess we have to be willing to change the reinforcement of nastiness in order to get to a place of kindness.

  73. Graduate students sometimes have more power than they think, esp in this networked age. Tell each other about good supervisors who treat you with respect and get you through (and thank them and tell their dean). Tell each other about supervisors who don’t.

  74. Re feedback – be proactive. Spend time preparing for supervisor feedback. Ask structured specific questions about the work, not you. Prepare yourself mentally. Generally if you frame the exercise in a particular way, the supervisor will follow suit b/c almost all academics are time-poor. And as my wonderful supervisors trained me, all feedback is a gift. It could be the asshole professor that spots the flaw that you can then fix and publish the best piece you have ever written. Who wins? You. Academia is like acting, constant auditioning. You need to keep confidence in your own voice.

  75. Great post and discussion.

    As a senior academic responsible for repeated unacceptable behaviour it is essential to appreciate how people feel and respond to different sorts of criticism. It can be a fine line to separate useful advice, comments that become too pointed and hurtful, and overtly grand-standing. Further, we have to remember that people are not perfect, they have bad days and misjudge situations. It is particularly hard for academics, whose success is dependent on focus, to follow the golden rule – think about how others feel and respond. Spending time thinking about how others feel is time consuming.

    I think that academics, regardless of their career stage, are all under enormous pressure. Our progress is continuously quantified and ranked against others, more than in almost any other profession. Hence mistakes are made. However if particular individuals are repeat offenders, they must eventually be called to account.

  76. This is not limited to academia. I think it is part of the nature of self-organizing social systems. I see this in the open source community. Linus Torvalds is the asshole-in-chief of the Linux community. The open source communities are supposedly free of any power structures or authority. Yet, people still do as they are told and take their licks like good boys. Notice I didn’t says “boys and girls”. When you remove the career and employment aspect from such an abusive social system, when volunteering to abuse and be abused, it becomes 98.5% male. It is also held up as the model that we should all follow.

  77. Terrific post. Those of us who work in higher ed and are non-academics are also on the receiving end of asshole behavior–sometimes even for so, since we are viewed as being lower on the food chain. Faculty members who are skilled in their fields can also believe they know more than the facilities manager or the dining services director or the web or communications professionals.

    There’s a terrific line in the novel “Next” by James Hynes in which the protagonist, an editor at U Michigan, reflects that “he has gone to work in academia, which means that on a daily basis he’s condescended to by experts.”

  78. Thanks for this post! Sadly, I think this is all very true. As a former academic, I have seen that mindset begin as early as graduate school or junior faculty levels. Some are just looking for the holes in your seminar to make themselves look smarter instead of looking for ways to improve science. (I know I sound a bit pollyanna-ish). The administration pays lip service to collaboration and the need for “team science” but that falls apart when your colleagues spend their time telling everyone how stupid their coworkers are! It might be interesting to see just how much gets accomplished if we were truly collaborative.

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  80. It is so encouraging to read all these comments. But surely, friends, NOW is the time to take action. We know the situation exists, I’ve no need to perpetuate negativity by telling my story. So – how about forming Circles of Competent Niceness (or some such, prefer this title to the acronym CON, people…) and getting this organised as a movement per se? Taking a leaf or two from the organisational development people? This would mean meeting regulary (say once a month) encouraging one person to present some stuff, discussing same and being encouraging. It would not mean continually going round in circles moaning about how ghastly our experiences have been. In this wise, it might well be possible through the ripple effect to change the culture around us. What say you?

  81. For most assholes, that’s a job requirement. Say you’re an editor at a top journal. Your job is rejecting papers, even ones that are worthy of publication. Your journal has a 5% acceptance rate but maybe 25% of submissions are worthy of publication. How can you reject deserving submissions without being an asshole?

    Or take one of the stories from the “Asshole” book about the “wimp” going through chemotherapy. Dollars to donuts the supervisor’s job was to build a case against the sick employee to justify a termination without a lawsuit. How can you be “nice” when your job is to give people poor performance evaluations to justify firing them?

    I guess there’s a question of whether or not people enjoy acting like an asshole but does it make a difference if you’re on the receiving end?

  82. After spending many years hanging around with academics from many fields, I have come to the conclusion that the reward level for academic assholery – behavior that cannot simply be explained away as competition for resources – often has an inverse relationship to the inferred “importance” of the field to the “real world”. In discussing a book we had both read, my brother-in-law (a physicist) reported that he found the academic assholery of one character – a history professor – to be ridiculous: “nobody would act like that, really!”. On the other hand, I (an anthropologist) found the character’s behavior unexceptional.

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  84. Easy: more jobs with security would end this trend of academia becoming a viciously competitive marketplace where everyone is increasingly desperate for a small piece of a shrinking pie.

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  86. I would like to take a deliberately opposite view of this. Our roles as academics require us to foster knowledge and learning, even if it means being not nice. I know of quite a few effective academics who are top-notch scholars, researchers, and mentors, but are not the nicest people. All things being the same it is better to be nice (and I personally never raise my voice in academic contexts, in case you’re wondering), but being effective and being nice are not the same thing, and if a choice is necessary (and I grant that it often isn’t) one should privilege the former over the latter.

    PS. Since when is a**hole an accepted word or description in academic writing? Tut-tut, Thesis Whisperer!

    • Yeah – to be honest, I fretted about using the word asshole. But Robert Sutton, who wrote the book had a cogent and elegant argument for using the term, so I took a chance. I highly recommend Sutton’s book to you – it might put your fears about being kinder necessarily lowering the standard of critique to rest. I certainly found this was the case. I’ve noticed a few people here have that same fear. Happy to have the debate with you after that if you want :-)

      • It is true I have not read Mr. Sutton’s work. Even so, while I’m quite willing to grant that he makes some good points, I would hardly grant that he is an authority to show that profanity directed at (or about) one’s colleagues and peers is acceptable. Indeed, just what kind of “circle of niceness” would I be part of, if I were in the habit of using such obscenities to refer to my peers? People could be excused for saying that I ought to look in the mirror!

    • I think the underlying issue is the motivation of the critic. If they are criticising for their own selfish means (ego-stroking, career-building, clique-cementing, etc) this is likely to be quite damaging. If criticism is genuinely offered for the good of the recipient and/or academic rigour, it can be quite positive.

    • I think the underlying issue is the motivation of the critic. If they are criticising for their own selfish means (ego-stroking, career-building, clique-cementing, etc) this is likely to be quite damaging. If criticism is genuinely offered for the good of the recipient and/or academic rigour, it can be quite positive.

    • “Asshole” is a useful term with a specific meaning. It’s not just swearing for the sake of swearing (e.g.”shitty idea” or “fucking idiot” ).

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  88. Excellent post. And about time for this to be out in the open, both in public and in academia.
    I observed and experienced too much of this (at all levels, including department heads) at a prominent self-inflated university over the last several years. I admit is has left me jaded, and was one of many reasons why I walked away (actually, I ran) from academia last year, after 25 years. On the other hand, I have experienced the opposite at a smaller university, where assholes were reprimanded. Of course, that was nearly two decades ago. Perhaps social evolution is selecting for a new species, Academia assholiata. ;)

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  90. Interesting.
    I’m a PhD student at teach at a community college. I’m a fairly recognized bitch and perhaps that is why I don’t seem to identify with some of the ‘stuff’ you throw around. That being said, I think that a LOT of this really chalks up to doing your research as you are seeking institutions for both work/tenure-track positions and further graduate studies. Find a place where you “fit” – realizing there will always be assholes regardless of the profession, position, or institution. The better ‘fit’ the better chances of non-asshole to asshole ratios balancing out and making a happily ever after. In real life I’m only a sporatic bitch, but, I guess…I learned, in a “man’s world” make a statement. Men remember bitches. So – here I am.

    • If by ‘bitch’ you mean a woman being powerful and assertive, bring it on! But if bitch means publicly demeaning and belittling others, then no way. I’m sure you mean the former, not the latter. So – all power to you. Assert the heck out of the academy sister :-)

      • By bitch I mean exactly what a man would consider a bitch in a ‘man’s world” – aggressive, assertive, intelligent and empowered. Belittling and demeaning? No. That isn’t my game…and never will be. I have a sharp tongue and think quickly, but still have some sort of personal integrity guiding my way. So – really… I guess, I wouldn’t even really consider myself a bitch…yet, the professional networks I dance in seem to. So – I’ll bitch on ;-)

  91. great post. having worked in corporate and academic environments, i believe the academics are considerably more child-like

  92. Great post! I’m actually of the opinion that, speaking from a scientific point of view, ‘assholes’ are necessary for success, on both a general and personal scale. I went through grade school with a highly competitive group of students, so maybe this viewpoint is slightly biased, but I feel as if science, in general, benefits from criticisms and disagreements regarding some ideas. Have you, I feel as if the passive-aggressive approach is a bit over-the-top, but criticism and disagreement is essential for the progression of science – even if it means sometimes being a dismissive asshole. In the same sense, this can encourage character building for some of those PhD students (and faculty alike) who may simply be doing bad science blindly (and let’s not kid ourselves, it happens…a lot). Sometimes that dismissive asshole in your department is the one that makes you open your eyes and see your science in a different light from that in which you do. With the wealth of knowledge that science has already achieved, it is essential that we all conduct the most relevant and meticulous science that we can, and, from where I stand, sometimes assholes can be beneficial in this sense.

    • A person can give criticism without stooping to the level of outright asshole. The attitude that is conveyed can be one of encouragement. That alone is more likely to invoke a sense of determination to succeed. Disagreeing with another’s findings is fine, I do all the time, but to be rude will provide no benefit other than propagating yet another asshole.

    • Dismissiveness may create innovation but that same person is the one who has just given you all their teaching and service jobs so they can just do their research. If everybody did that, our institutions would collapse.

  93. It occurs to me that in order to demonstrate the advantages of being a nice person, rather than the asshole, one must prove their cleverness without the use of the rude, socially unacceptable language. Simply refusing to let them take advantage of your niceness can be outstandingly effective. I, for one, have noticed that, in academic circles, simply responding to the asshole with a sugar-and-spice comment about their inadequate observation works wonders. It’s a bit of a two-edged sword. It can be very easy to become the asshole doing this. In the English research filed when doing research on Shakespearean origin texts for “The Scottish Play” I found that there were many among the senior levels of academics that would degrade my arguments concerning the intentional abridgment of the play in order to make it useful for a traveling company. Many did not accept that, since Shakespeare did not travel that his work mustn’t have traveled either. I used my biggest words and most innocent voice to simply call them out on their opinions and cited well established research regarding piracy of Shakespeare’s work and gave them no further regard. I castrated their arguments without the asshole language and encouraged others to put aside their commentary as poisonous. In a way, I was an asshole, but, I never used rude terms, or degraded them specifically. This hybrid assholery may be the answer to the flagrant assholes. I am generally considered to be a nice guy at work, and offer encouragement and guidance to the new and young. I am also not one to be walked over. It’s not asshole behavior to demand the respect due, it’s asshole behavior to demean those around you for the sake of seeming clever.

  94. My suggestion: always speak the truth. Assholes rely on lies, and their biggest lie is that plain speaking is somehow their monopoly. The opposite is true. They get on by lying, helped all the way by lying sicophants. And there’s the disadvantage of getting on as an asshole, you turn into a lying shit that no one likes. You die lonely.

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  98. My guess is that this varies by institution. My own institution suffers from what has been dubbed by faculty “terminal niceness” where all discord is suppressed in the interest of “getting along”. I find it stifling, myself.

    • If you mean to say that the discordant feelings are suppressed, regardless of why, then, yes this is not a healthy work place. I don’t feel as though being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole is good for the work environment, but, as John Saeki said above, lies are not good either. I simply think that being polite (different than being nice) is a fundamental necessity of any institution. Growth comes from disagreement. Assholes come from assholes.

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  100. I am in my second year of PhD studies and so far it has been a journey from hell. I certainly wasn’t expecting…being exposed to the pettiness, jealousy, and accusations at the academic level. I though I was alone in this form of treatment until I came across this blog. Unfortunately, I have to deal with accusations by my former supervisor of plagiarism, which I think are completely ridiculous. What I believe this is really about is that I exposed him for what he truly was and complained about his inappropriate behavior and conduct last year.

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  105. I take the view that empty vessles make the most noise. In my experience of academia, the truly exceptional people I have met and/or worked with have never felt the need to tell me how good they are.

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  107. Where I work (Evergreen State College) we teach on interdisciplinary teams. Our deans rotate out of the faculty into the “deanery,” then come back into the faculty and teach on teams again. The result of both structures is that if you act like an asshole, no one will teach with you and your reputation plummets. If you are interesting, supportive, smart, and flexible, everyone will invite you to be on a team. Because we are required to teach with a certain number of people over a period of years (eight different people in five years), we are constantly seeking out new teaching partners and keeping up connections with former partners. In some ways it’s like having a dance card; at its best, it is a blast! At its worst, it’s like a bad date.

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  111. I walked away from academia because of precisely the culture you describe. More often that not it was my fellow PhD students/sessionals (Asshole Phd student: “How’s your PhD going?” Me: “I submitted it last week”. Asshole: “So now you’re unemployed?”), but it was especially bewildering when people at the top of the food chain did it. I still miss some aspects of academia (mostly the teaching), but this sort of culture is precisely why I ultimately found it so disappointing and so lacking in the things which attracted me in the first place (collegiality, collaboration, real intellectual exchange). It’s nice to stumble upon a piece like this and confirm that it’s not just me!

  112. I will never forget the academic asshole who asked me at a Q&A panel discussion of my work (which had been getting glowing reviews at this initial presentation till he piped up in vicious tones): “I just want to know if the final product will be better,” and went on to elaborate that he found the writing “sloppy.” I said “Yes, I anticipate it will be better, since this is supposed to be a learning experience. But I will have to rely upon better criticism than ‘sloppy.’ I find that sloppy criticism.”

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  115. Pingback: Success Requires Being a Jerk | Stories From The Personal Log

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  117. Paul Samuelson was an academic asshole (or “enfant terrible” as they called them back then) and he completely took over the field of economics. Are there other prominent examples?

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  119. I went to an all-boys school where there was a firmly entrenched culture of nastiness, including rampant homophobia. Half a dozen of us decided to start challenging this culture, and one of our most effective actions was to start hugging each other. To our amazement this caught on, and it soon became cool to hug. I can’t claim that the nastiness magically went away, but it was a massive blow for niceness. Perhaps more open affection at conferences could have a major impact?

  120. I made it clear my supervisor annoyed me & I walked away. In short, I talked back. I have a new supervisor now who makes me feel like having an hour of my time is a gift for her. Nice people should stick together – when we have critical mass, we’ll change the assholes’ behaviour.

    My previous supervisor a) didn’t read my work before the meeting b) criticised the paper based on 3 versions ago, which I called her on c) took the paper I gave her in the meeting & put it under a stack without looking at it d) told me ‘don’t forget to keep your sources & facts together, it’s very annoying when you forget where you found something’ so I showed her a copy of a page of my spreadsheet workbook.
    Then I told her that the generalities that she was making are destructive & not reflective of the current version of the thesis. I asked her to make specific criticisms, otherwise I won’t know what to change. It was a difficult meeting, which I acknowledged in the meeting.
    She (ahem) half-assed capitulated. But by then I’d made my decision. Luckily so did the school – the rules change meant she had too many PhDs to manage anyway. So … I happily scarpered.
    Speak up people – you needn’t take abuse. The power play only exists if you support it by acquiescing.

  121. well, the same thing happen here at my place. In my case, i am the student. I have some thesis proposal, in economic -branding and semiotic. When i tell my teacher, he just went insane talking about how nonsense semiotic is while my semiotic teacher tell me that history is never the truth ;coz it is “his-story”. Everyone is lowering the other subject as not good. Well, i was though that student interest should put at first priority but that not how it done. Well, i start thinking that academic is like a war zone. I just don’t understand how this place can be so nasty

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  125. The emphasis on assholeness is misguided; it has its place, and can be useful for guiding some students in the right direction. I’m a junior faculty member at an elite institution and my wife is also leaving a (different) elite Ph.D. program after a painful experience. The distinguishing quality of successful academics is their astonishing selfishness. They have either no conception of or no interest in how their actions (or lack thereof) adversely affect others. They are convinced of their own specialness and self righteousness, and only care their own careers, prestige, and not being bothered. They are coddled babies and whiners. This selfishness has an insidious effect on all aspects of academic life. The tenure system is rotten.

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  128. After looking into graduate schools for a while and doing some research as an undergraduate, I always wondered if I was the only one thinking this but I’m glad I’m not alone. I quit my field of study because of it, and am trying to get a master’s degree position at a good school.Especially in the field I’m looking into I think you get a lot of really well funded professors and it gets to their head and they develop some serious asshole syndrome. They only pretend to be nice if they think they can get something out of you, then it’s back to being an asshole. I’m thinking of scrapping the idea of doing a masters degree altogether at this point, politics in academia are a real turn off.

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  132. Love this post. I was inducted into the circle of niceness today! I attended a conference outside my usual field and didn’t know a single person. During the break, I was sitting by myself checking emails on my phone when two women I didn’t know sat on either side of me and intentionally included me in their conversation as a newbie at the conference. Thanks Inger and Rachael! I will follow this practice in future.

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  135. They are a few “break the neck type” supervisors who can destroy your life and lifestyle. Shame on such academics
    I just fixed my supervisor yesterday after he launched a verbal assault against me. My fault was that I reminded him about the rules and that got him panicking!!!
    what idiots these supervisors are…

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  137. Excellent text. I suffered a lot from being, well, bullied, by some colleagues (some even at lower rank), but I hope I resisted and did not became an asshole myself. I strongly believe that helping others and being nice to others may be contagious too, and I do try to help to everyone I can. Maybe the circle will continue.

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    • I suppose it depends on whether you are playing the long game or the short one as to whether those tactics can be considered ‘winning’. I really think building long term relationships is a winning strategy – and this doesn’t mean praising indiscriminately. Thanks for the comment, you just gave me an idea for another post…

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  151. Reblogged this on sixdegreesofstoogeration and commented:
    Heh. I don’t know what’s worse, the asshole or the whatever-you’d-call-it-when-everyone’s-nice-oops-you’re-gone-don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-ass-’cause-we-don’t-want-assprints-on-the-door-hole.

    Can’t there be a reasonable middle ground?

    Think about it, won’t you?

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  153. Excellent post. Right on the mark. You are completely on point. How do I manage? With this:

    Well, I’ll be hugging my children and not my framed degrees when I die.

  154. Thank you so much for writing this. My thesis was a nightmare due to this phenomenon, and when my thesis advisor could not tank my thesis with this type of behavior, they tanked my job prospects. I’m still unemployed, but at least I feel better!

  155. Sadly sub clinical narcissists and academia go hand in hand. If you’re worried and B2B jerks try being professional staff (esp if you’re more qualified to teach then said jerk). Yes being an unkind jerk is commonplace.

  156. Interesting take on the subject. I just wondered if you had any thoughts on how gender affects all of this. It seems to me that while men get ahead for being ‘assholes’, women tend to get punished (by colleagues and students) even for simply being assertive or saying ‘no’ to excessive demands. In other words, women lose by being nasty and by being nice.

  157. Pingback: Academic assholes and the circle of niceness | harshwordage

  158. I’m in the middle of one of these right now — and one element is the lack of accountability not only from administrators but the system in general. Who has the authority to tell one of the silverbacks that they are being openly nasty and disrespectful? The system doesn’t allow for this at all — and as far as I can see, there’s no downside for them other than the hell that awaits them when they croak. My issue is strongly, poisonously gendered (“Too bad no women or minorities would be qualified for this high-post” QUOTE). But if I even allude to it, I seem like “the bitch.” So I just move around and keep going, HOPING those that need to understand. One option (not a solution, but hey) is to build strong networks of “niceness” and FEMPIRES that not only give you advice and support but give you the weapons and capital you need to ultimately win the battles.

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  162. I’m a Level B Associate Lecturer… I entered at Level A and was promoted last year. My workplace is one of great academic thuggery…. I’ve tried a number of times to have conversations with senior academics on things I happen to find simply interesting or fascinating and every time I feel intellectually cock slapped, embarrassed, etc etc. Yet when I talk to these same people about my daughter, they are lovely and I see the real person. It upsets me to think that the culture doesn’t encourage inquisitiveness, the admitting that you don’t know something, the wondering why… How are things every discovered if people don’t admit that they start from a place of not knowing?! If the spirit of exploration, rather than recognition was celebrated I think we’d all have a much more fun time in academia land.

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  164. Thank you for this post. As a relatively young member in a tertiary institution and a PhD student, I often find myself being shocked (or should I really be shocked) by the attitude and arrogance displayed by some of my peers and seniors. Being “nice” and open to discussion and collaboration seems to be counter-culture sometimes. But that doesn’t mean research should be always be about competition. I am hopeful this “circle” will be sustained as I see only bleakness and frustration in giving in to the ‘dark side’ of knowledge.

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  167. Fantastic article. This is precisely the reason why I plan to stay working in libraries rather than become an academic when I have completed my PhD. I couldn’t be bothered putting up with the pettiness and downright unprofessional behaviour that is so prevalent in academia. My own advice is to call people out where possible if they are behaving inappropriately although admittedly it is easier to do when you are not staying in that field.

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  170. Unquestionably consider that that you stated. Your favorite
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  174. Thanks. This read worked better than a counselling. Although Im just a MSc who just finished, I had some bitter experience of academic arrogance which cracked my self confidence.

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