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Politics in Academia


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I'm a PhD student in the social sciences, and although my passion is research and I can't imagine myself doing anything else, I'm also learning a lot about politics in the field. I'm concerned that the "game" one must play to get hired, published, tenure, etc. might present far more ethical challenges than I really want to deal with. For example, I hear about peers or professors stealing ideas, booting authors off or further down the list for a publication for ridiculous reasons, adding authors to help a friend out even if they didn't contribute much or at all, having to stroke the egos of the editors, ending your career if you bruise the wrong ego, etc. (some of these are stories I've read on this site, some come directly from faculty and other students I've spoken with).  It seems to me that there is a great deal of risk - you might put 6 years into working toward a PhD, and then for political reasons you may have a hard time getting your dissertation accepted, or not get letters of recommendation because the faculty doesn't like where you're applying for jobs, or not getting published in a certain journal because you challenged an editor's paper (even if professionally) in another journal, etc. I guess what I'm asking is, how big of an impact do these concerns have on the quality of life as a professor? Does this depend heavily on the school where you work (top tier and under a lot of pressure versus a more balanced school)? To be a successful PhD student, does "learning to play by the rules" mean as much, if not more, than your motivation and skills? (And by rules, I mean jumping through hoops even if it may sacrifice the integrity of your work, or bump you down the author's list unjustifiably, etc.). I am not talking about being unprofessional as part of the rule - of course I would always approach my work, my critiques of others' work, and any conversations I have as professionally and respectfully as possible. But I've seen professors try to embarrass colleagues or act rudely during seminars and everyone seems to think it's the norm, whereas I feel like withdrawing from such unprofessional discussions and behaviors. 

Perhaps I'm just having one of those "do I really want to put myself through this?" moments... But I really don't want the (potentially unethical) politics to ruin my passion and quality of life, given the opportunity costs of pursuing this goal for the next several years. 

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From whom and where do you hear about these activities? Are your informants reliable sources looking out for your best interests?  Or are they playing a political game in which you're a now their pawn?  Is any profession or other organized activity in the U.S.apolitical?

These questions do not mean that your concerns aren't valid and that you're ethical concerns aren't important--the question is designed to help differentiate between the Way Things Are and the Way Things Should Be. Privileging the latter over the former can lead to heartbreak, disillusionment, and an extended stay in the private sector. (Or so I've heard. ;))

Here's a recommendation. (Or five. No, wait. Nine.)

  1. Develop relationships with professors in your department and identify those who are willing to teach, mentor, or train you to handle the political aspects of your profession. In your conversations with these professors, you will need to listen to what is not said. (One of the best pieces of guidance I received came from a departmental chair. He told me that the secret to being a good departmental chair was making sure that the bathrooms had paper towels.)
  2. Find ways to tease out your conceptualization of politics in the Ivory Tower. If you you're inside a sphere that houses collection of spheres, changing in size and density over time as they bounce around, how do you get to where you want to go without getting overwhelmed?
  3. Study the policies of your department, program, parent institution, and the profession you want to join. Keep in mind that the rules of the road alone don't stop speeding, DUI, and driving on the sidewalk. 
  4. Figure out how you want to "play the game." If you want to be a professional academic, you will likely have to play the game. The sooner you figure out how you want to navigate the politics, the sooner you can start developing the skills and tools you will need.
  5. Understand your limits. Think about what you'll do as you approach them. Before you're given a choice between ethical and unethical options, you will likely encounter signposts and warning signs. If you can figure out how to identify those markers in advance, you may position yourself to protect better your interests. 
  6. Avoid the gossip, grousing, and venting of graduate students that are in your cohort and a year or two ahead (i.e. those who haven't take their qualifying exams). Those who don't know are often the ones who talk the most. 
  7. Find the rock of your department. The "rock" will be the professor or staff member to whom many turn for a empathetic ear, keen insight, wise counsel, a hand up, and, sometimes, a kick in the pants.
  8. Avoid the CHE fora. Ultimately, it's a huge pond for hippos. The most nourishing and refreashing draught of water you drink there is still going to have poop in it.
  9. Read read read posts related to the professional development of graduate students by this board's moderators, by the established professionals who occasionally post, by @telkanuru, by @TMP, and by @juilletmercredi and some of the old hands who ceased coming here years ago.
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Not in the social sciences, but STEM has very similar situations, and as the above have stated, there is always politics in every field. Best stated by "ideal vs. reality". I have seen professors get fired (non-tenure) just because they pissed off the dean, I've seen TAs that give A's get more classes/opportunities than those that grade more fairly (or harsher), I've seen PhD students have their programs extended so the PI could just keep them around longer, I've seen PIs try to forcibly get their students kicked out of the entire PhD program (because they didn't like them), I've seen PIs throw their students under the bus and put their name first author and the student last because the student pissed them off, etc. etc. etc. Every field will have some politics in it, and you will have to learn how to play the game properly to succeed smoothly. For example, trying to find out the most about your POI so you don't get stuck with an asshat, trying to get on friendly terms with your PI and the schools higher ups and faculty members, trying to be on friendly terms with those in your lab, etc. And that's only on a student level (since that's where I'm at), I've heard a lot of stories of the political factors faculty members themselves go through. 

However, I don't think "playing the game" is really a morally or ethically bad thing. Its more of psychologically understanding how people work, and trying to understand that so you know how to put yourself in a position to succeed in life. This applies to everything: academia, work (industry), relationships, family, friends, etc. 

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I think that morally unethical events are more newsworthy and worrisome, so they are reported, while many functional and ethical academics operate successfully and reasonably. I was from a top tier PhD program and my advisor and our group did not do any unethical things. There were certainly unethical things going on in the school at various levels, but those were not the norm. 

But I do think stories of students experiencing scenarios they were not expecting is normal. Sometimes you might be surprised that you had to do something you didn't think was necessary but it turns out to be part of the culture of your field. This isn't always unethical, unless you have an extremely strict moral philosophy. For example, if you believed that a strict 100% meritocracy is the only ethical way to make hiring/promotion/etc. decisions in academia, then you will find that people will be acting unethically. However, that's not really a problem unique to academia, it's human behaviour and you'll see that this happens in most of the rest of life too.

That is, being facing morally ambiguous decisions isn't unique to academia and every field (academic or otherwise) has its own sets of idiosyncrasies that may jive with some people but not with others. Although serious ethical breaches do happen, I think they are small but very attention-grabbing number of events. Many dilemma situations may just be because you're new to the field. After more experience, you may see why there isn't a problem with the situation or perhaps you will discover a flaw and you could work to fix it one day (all fields will have flaws).

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7 hours ago, samman1994 said:

However, I don't think "playing the game" is really a morally or ethically bad thing. Its more of psychologically understanding how people work, and trying to understand that so you know how to put yourself in a position to succeed in life. 

I completely agree with the above statement, and I'm generally very good at sensing how to treat people and not step on toes so as to position myself favorably. I'm not looking for an apolitical environment, but a reasonably respectable one. That being said:

I have seen professors get fired (non-tenure) just because they pissed off the dean, I've seen TAs that give A's get more classes/opportunities than those that grade more fairly (or harsher), I've seen PhD students have their programs extended so the PI could just keep them around longer, I've seen PIs try to forcibly get their students kicked out of the entire PhD program (because they didn't like them), I've seen PIs throw their students under the bus and put their name first author and the student last because the student pissed them off, etc. etc. etc.

I do think the above behaviors ARE significantly unethical. So I guess my question is, how often do students or professors face these situations? I'm a very professional and modest person, so I'm not concerned if these horror situations are typically the result of immaturity or lack of social skills (or arrogance) on the part of the "victim" of these outcomes, but that's what I'm uncertain of. Is being a good person and responding professionally enough to shield oneself from the darker side of politics? Or does it make one an easy target for less ethical colleagues to manipulate in the game?

I worked in industry for several years, so politics are not new to me. However, I knew that certain positions were more prone to unethical "rules" and I could avoid those situations. But if one wants to become a professor, I guess I'm curious whether it's possible to keep a clean nose and stay uninvolved in such dealings, without sacrificing a career - assuming that one is professional and not an arrogant jerk. I've known a few people who left grad school because they found themselves in situations where they had to choose between their integrity and their PhD. I don't think my program is one of those cases, but I'm starting to sense that the best path to a reasonably ethical lifestyle is a balanced or teaching school rather than working at a research university. Of course, there are administrative politics professors must play anywhere, and I'm fine with that. I'm more concerned with, "I emptied my 401(k) and left a successful career, dedicated 6+ years to pursuing my PhD, and now I can't graduate because my advisor needs me to finish a project for them," or, "my advisor won't write a recommendation because they don't like the school I'm applying to, or someone at that school, and are therefore interfering with my family and desired lifestyle," or something similarly petty.

I guess it's just something for me to keep my eyes open for and to think about. Politics are certainly a part of life, but some people darken the lives of those around them, and I've learned to simply stay away rather than walk on eggshells for the sake of my own happiness and wellbeing. 

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@Jazlynne  Sigaba offers excellent pointers that you should follow.  @Sigaba and I are in the history discipline.

FWIW, I honestly don't hear too many horror stories.  I don't know if it's because of my department being pretty ethical and our department chair is quite fair.  Establishing contacts with professors in the department and outside of the university will help balance the overall picture.  For example, I was worried when I hear my exam committee arguing as I listened to their muffled voices from the outside.  My undergrad adviser and a mentor at another university confirmed that the committee simply trying to come to a consensus in the decision even if one professor didn't want me to pass. My adviser tried very hard to pretend that the decision was mutual despite the obvious; it's just how it was (that the senior professor twisted the arms of the others, including my adviser). On the opposite end, when I hear something from the outside that I am not so sure of, I go right to my adviser and ask her and she'll clarify whatever I am confused about.

It is true that graduate students do not get treated equally across the board.  Somebody has to be the top and somebody has to be the bottom. Graduate students who fail to take their work, the discipline and the faculty seriously get themselves shuffled to the bottom, meaning less respect and attention from the faculty and funding down the road. It is true that one may work very hard on something only to learn that the project do not pass muster-- and usually that is because the graduate student does not hit the balance between "need to be totally independent" and "must absolutely ask for help every single step along the way" that is appropriate for her/his specific career stage.  I cannot tell you so many times I have watch my peers fall in one of those extremes and struggle to find a good balance to get respect from the faculty, more often the "independent" route.

In ways, the game is there but you don't have to play it completely. In fact, those who attempt to make every single little thing a game end up failing the entire game.  The key is to recognize when it is necessary to jump in the arena and when it's better to sit on the bench and let the game play itself out.  This approach will also benefit your overall mental health.

Academic politics can be nasty but not any better than Wall Street.  That said, some disciplines are kinder than others; some sub-fields are kinder than others.  You best hope that your discipline or/and your sub-field is one of those that try to do things more ethically than others.  The only way you can know is just ask the poeple involved.


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@TakeruK summed it best then. It is completely possible to go into academia without breaking your moral/ethical code (unless it's too strict). The instances I stated above do happen, but it is very much possible to avoid them by the methods I stated, and in addition, they are not the norm. In regards to the politics, industry and academia aren't all that different, so you can handle it the same way you did in industry. Yes you have the whole pre-tenure publication rush, and the entire students/teaching "good grades" thing, but those can all be done without breaking that moral/ethical road. My personal PI was an extremely blunt honest individual. She didn't insult anyone outright, and was very friendly, but she was very straight forward with a lot of people and had a strict/strong moral/ethical code. She was able to get tenure, and most people failed her class because she was more strict than others. It was definitely stressful (pre-tenure), and it probably would've been easier if she did just give students A's or manipulate publications, but she didn't need to, nor want to. She constantly got into fights (disagreements) with higher ups and other faculty members, but again, she was always respectful and nice, she just had strong opinions. So you can definitely make it in academia without breaking any moral codes, you'll just have to learn to "play the game" properly. 

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Thanks for all of the replies. I think I've just been extremely stressed since the start of the semester and becoming particularly sensitive to potential threats or risks that could come up. You don't really hear anyone saying,  "I'm having a great semester!" so it starts to feel like a long road and you question if it's worth it. I'll definitely stay alert but try to relax a bit until I experience more for myself. 

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Remember that people in general are more likely to share negative experiences than neutral to positive ones. The reason you don't hear people say "I'm having a great semester!" is because...well, why would they? There's not as much a motivation to share when nothing is really happening.

It's like the joke we tell about public health - you know public health is working because nothing is happening. You hear about the water crisis in Flint and other Michigan cities a lot; what you don't read are news stories like Water in Redmond, WA Is Totally Fine For 11th Consecutive Month This Year or There Have Been No Measles Outbreaks in Atlanta for 5 Years. Likewise, you're not going to hear a lot from the people who are doing fine, because they are doing fine. You're going to hear a lot of horror stories, but that doesn't necessarily mean that there are more of them in academia than anywhere else or that most graduate students encounter them.

I didn't have the most positive of experiences in graduate school and I got my PhD from a department that was sort of dysfunctional. And even in that space, none of the really unethical things that were listed above happened there that I was aware of. There were other, messy things that happened. But not those. I'd guess that most graduate students (thankfully) do not have first-hand experience with people stealing their work, for example.

But yes, the other thing is that your views on what's "ethical" and permissible - and what you are personally willing to do - may change over time as well. Playing with authorship on papers, for example, seems like it should be straightforward but often is not (especially when it might, say, help get the paper out the door faster). Everybody has to stroke some egos from time to time; it's the magnitude and frequency that may become alarming. Staying behind an extra year to finish up some projects and push out a couple more papers is often a mutual decision between a PI and a doctoral student.

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