The Valley of Shit

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: Thesis Whisperer


I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidence in himself, his topic and the quality of the work he had done.

Dave is not the only person who seems to be experiencing these feelings lately. I have another friend, let’s call him Andrew.

Andrew is doing his PhD at a prestigious university and has been given an equally prestigious scholarship. Like Dave, Andrew approaches his PhD as another job, applying the many time management skills he had learned in his previous career. He has turned out an impressive number of papers, much to the delight of his supervisors.

Again I was shocked when Andrew emailed me to say he was going to quit. He claimed everything he did was no good and it took a number of intense phone calls to convince him to carry on.

Both these students were trapped in a phase PhD study I have started to call “The Valley of Shit”.

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.

I feel like I have spent more than my fair share of time in the Valley of Shit. I was Thesis Whisperering while I was doing my PhD – so you can imagine the pressure I felt to succeed. An inability to deliver a good thesis, on time, would be a sign of my professional incompetence on so many levels. The Valley of Shit would start to rise up around me whenever I starting second guessing myself. The internal monologue went something like this:

“My supervisor, friends and family say I can do it – but how do they really KNOW? What if I disappoint all these people who have such faith in me? What will they think of me then?”

Happily, all my fears were groundless. My friends, teachers and family were right: I did have it in me. But boy – the smell of all those days walking in the Valley of Shit stay with you.

So I don’t want to offer you any empty words of comfort. The only advice I have is: just have to keep walking. By which I mean just keep writing, doing experiments, analysis or whatever – even if you don’t believe there is any point to it. Remember that you are probably not the right person to judge the value of your project or your competence right now.

Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help. Although you are alone in the Valley of Shit there is no need to be lonely – find a fellow traveller or two and have a good whinge if that helps. But beware of indulging in this kind of ‘troubles talk’ too much lest you start to feel like a victim.

Maybe try to laugh at it just a little.

You may be one of the lucky ones who only experience the Valley of Shit once in your PhD, or you might be unlucky and find yourself there repeatedly, as I did. I can completely understand those people who give up before they reach the end of the Valley of Shit – but I think it’s a pity. Eventually it has to end because the university won’t let you do your PhD forever. Even if you never do walk out the other side, one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.

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Academic Assholes and the Circle of Niceness

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: The Thesis Whisperer


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.

Anyway, 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?