Friday, January 15, 2016

The Academic Asshole

At the Transportation Research Board's annual meeting this week, in the midst of all the great research and updates about transportation in the US and the world, I came across a few examples of the breed that would be called 'academic assholes' - faculty that polish their egos by targeting grad students. This has become increasingly common over the years as competition for funding gets tight and frustration increases. And as people occupying one of the lowest rungs of the academic ladder, grad students often face the brunt.

Let's differentiate between genuine criticism and being an asshole. Criticism is good in academia, it prevents complacency and helps us progress. Every academic should welcome criticism as a way to improve their work. However, a lot of times, criticism comes in the form of gloating and even name-calling. Pointing out the shortcomings of a study is fine, pointing out the benefits of your study as opposed to mine is not. If the aim is to work towards better research, that is commendable. If the aim is to simply put down one study in favor of your own (and at times, just to put a person down), then it is not welcome.

Perhaps the most disgusting thing is that such unfair criticism often comes to grad students, but not to the professor that it is actually aimed at. Obviously, being as asshole to a peer can have consequences in the future, but doing so to a lowly grad student would not. By the time the grad student is actually someone of consequence, the asshole would be retired or even dead. This is wrong, and genuine criticism does not require being an asshole. Often, this includes terms like "your research is useless" or "my results are better," which are meant to demotivate the student and not move research forward.

If you find an academic asshole, as I did several times, move on. They seem to be an inevitable part of academic life, an irritant that you just have to live with. Ultimately, good research will prevail, and that is what we should all look forward to. 

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