Ask us anything: academic bullying in ecology

The next question and answer in our “ask us anything” series:

How common is academic bullying in ecology, and are men or women the more frequent target? Where bullying is operationally defined as anything from gossiping about someone, to intentionally making their life difficult/unpleasant through assignment of tasks/equipment/resources, to giving overly negative or insufficiently-positive feedback, to setting unreasonable goals/deadlines, to unreasonably changing goals/deadlines. (anonymous)

Brian: I’ve never thought about it in terms of bullying. But I do regularly say that academia is one of the most hierarchical environments I’ve encountered in (and I say that having spent 10 years as a business consultant and consulting with a lot of fortune 500 companies and watching my wife working through K-12 education and non-profits). I think the medical and military professions might be the only places that are more hierarchical. And what is most damaging about it is that we pretend it doesn’t exist. In business you have a boss, and you know your boss more or less gets to tell you what the priorities are and in the extreme can fire you. But that said, the emphasis is on results, and good ideas are valued wherever they come from. I feel like the pyramid in academia is equally steep (senior faculty effectively hold hire-fire power over junior faculty, and all faculty hold hire-fire power over postdocs and grad students, all of whom have career impacting power over undergrads), but we ignore this power hierarchy and pretend like we’re all colleagues. I personally find this results in many ways in much less of a meritocracy and more of an old fashioned apprencticeship, put in your time to earn your credential approach than most modern well run businesses. I expected this as a grad student, but I remember being surprised as a junior faculty member realizing that no matter how good I was at certain things, I would never be taken seriously until I had tenure and done my time. As an interesting sociological foray, compare the perception of bosses in PhD Comics (arbitrary, capricious, life destroying) as emblematic of academia vs bosses in Dilbert (irrational but ultimately, goofy, bumbling and of no real importance) as emblematic of business.

To get to your question about bullying, the academic environment is a perfect environment for the bully to thrive. The explicit power in business certainly allows some jerks to be jerky, but there is more accountability in the long run. Academics are deathly afraid of stepping on their peers toes because they never know when one of their peers will end up as their department chair or peer committee chair. I have seen many cases where bullying was happening and  a peer of the bully became aware of it and hated it but felt powerless to stop it.

That said the vast majority of people in ecology are not jerks/bullies. Bottom line is I doubt bullying is more or less common in ecology than any other walk of life. But because of our unwillingness to be explicit about the power hierarchies in academia and because of the whole “peers don’t tell peers what to do” thing, I think bullying probably ends up feeling worse, fails to get stopped, and probably has longer term consequences on people’s careers more often in academia than in other places. I have no idea if men or women are more likely to be targets.

Jeremy: My own anecdotal experience in ecology is that bad behavior of any sort, including bullying, is rare. But that’s a very small sample, obviously, as any one person’s experience necessarily is.

Don’t get me wrong–I certainly have seen academic supervisor-supervisee relationships with serious problems. It’s just that those problems hardly ever include bullying in my anecdotal experience. Which kind of gets to how I think of the issue of bullying–as one way, among others, in which someone with power can abuse their position, or otherwise fail to behave appropriately towards others. Any hierarchical organization of any size, including an academic organization, needs to have policies and procedures to prevent those abuses, and to discover and deal with them when they do occur. Universities do have those policies and procedures, and they do get used, though I’m sure their use and effectiveness varies.

I do think there are some ways in which the “culture” of ecology works to prevent bullying, at least among supervisors and their graduate students. For instance, in most ecology labs there’s an expectation that graduate students will develop their own projects, at least in part. As opposed to being viewed as hired hands who work for the PI and do what the PI tells them to do, which is very much the culture in some other areas of biology. In my own anecdotal experience, it’s not just that people in ecology like to think of each other as colleagues even though they’re really not–they actually do treat each other as colleagues, to the greatest extent possible. Brian suggests that the informality of academic power structures encourages bullying, or at least makes it harder to stop when it does occur. I’m not sure if that’s right or not; my gut instinct is that it could cut both ways.

1 thought on “Ask us anything: academic bullying in ecology

  1. The “rewards” of academic life, the grades, titles, money, and appointments, tend to select for hierarchical behavior. I always enjoyed most “slumming” with my seedier whose research wasn’t funded, and who served on no committees.

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