Personalities inside and outside of academia

After much inner struggle, and a lot of deliberation (not to mention a stroke of luck) I’ve left research last March. I’ve become a civil servant, and trying my hands at policy; in short, I’ve become an office worker.

The changes are not all good. The pay is not higher (in fact, it sucks), the work is not as interesting a research, and I’m living a sessile life now, tied to a computer all day, which is really, really driving me insane.

However, I realized something. I’m happy. I’ve written about the problems in the field of scientific research, but having moved outside of it the first time of my life, I’ve gotten a perspective on the day-to-day life in the lab, on the social interactions and inner politics. And I have to say I’m really happy to leave all that crap behind.

To sum up my observation: this is the first time I’m working with pleasant, professional people, who don’t seem to enjoy to drama, to “office politics”, and who do not revel in personal confrontation.

Obviously, this statement is untrue on face value. Office politics goes on everywhere; especially in offices. (Hence the name…) However, I really am working with adults. “Adult” does not necessarily mean physical age; I’ve been working with adults in research labs, too. However, a lot of those adults behaved like infantile high school students, plotting against each other, gossiping, forming little groups, and ramping up the drama in general.

The very first PhD I had to abandon in Florida because the lab manager (the wife of the prof -bad sign…) had serious psychological issues which she lived out on all of us; this lead the next-in-lines, the postdocs (three grown women with families) behave like mean, spiteful teenagers, which further poisoned the laboratory.

The most telling story: after getting accepted into the lab, they have refused to acknowledge us in general. Simply did not return greetings, letting the door go when we were behind them, and so on. Six month later one of them actually told my then fiancée, who started with me: you’ve over the initiation period. I mean: seriously? Are you for real? One of them actually turned the lab manager against me after my first day in the lab by lying about something I said to her. From then on the lab manager made sure my life was hell in the lab.

Anyhow. I could go on, but let’s focus on the issue at hand. After a couple of stints in different other labs as technician I’ve met a lot of people who were very conscious of the academic pecking order, and made sure they abuse their status over people they perceived lower status than them (a postdoc actually yelled at me once because of something my line manager did in the lab… he could not yell at him, obviously), I’ve took part in a PhD program in the UK, where I thought I’ve gotten into a high school class. Even supposedly grown women and men behaved like frat boys and girls. Drama was high, of course.

Then came my postdoc, which was in a very toxic place, full of resentful, paranoid people. One other postdoc, whom we were on a friendly terms (and a close co-worker) stopped talking to me from one day to another; to this day I have no idea why. (Someone told me it was jealously because our line manager liked me. It’s a guess, though.) Another, who WAS a friend for a while (and was also embittered and paranoid about everyone in the Institute), somehow misinterpreted my -admittedly uninvited- offer to help with a confocal microscope he was struggling with, and from then on he was openly hostile to the degree of actually wanting to instigate a physical confrontation once… It was surreal.

And now I’m working with adults, who are pleasant, who are professional, and who do not do this shit on a level I’ve experienced all my life. I feel I’ve graduated from high-school finally.

Why the disparity? I think the answer is relatively simple: many people in academia do not leave school, ever. You don’t get the clean break of graduating and changing your life from a student life to a “serious, working man” life, giving up your T-shirt for a suit and tie. They don’t learn to behave like a professional. Sure, you get to go to graduation ceremonies, but the next day you’re back in the lab, doing your experiments. Even as a postdoc you don’t feel like anything changed; you still feel like one of the students. You gain a fellowship -again, no jump; assistant professorship -you’re still one of the boys, as you spend most of your time in the lab with them’ you even go out to drink with them. Perhaps when you get to be higher up, you finally distance yourself from the others in the lab; after all, you are responsible for the money coming in, for managing the lab, for managing your students and technicians; but then again: I would not know, as I quit at the postdoc stage.

One thing is for sure: this “youth mentality” can be amazingly stimulating and fun, when the people are right; but it can also lead to horrible, toxic environment, when a few poisonous personalities take over the group dynamics.

I’m, for now, glad I’ve left it. I’ve had a couple of great years at the University of Miami with (mostly) normal people; I’ve met some amazing people I never, ever want to lose touch with, but the general consensus after my postdoc is that it’s better to be among adults.


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