I recently posed this question asking whether or not it is advised to get a pet during the PhD process. The major premise was if the time/energy-cost of raising a puppy, let's say, is too detrimental to research or if it can in fact increase productivity by providing companionship during a trying process.

This topic provoked some pretty vehement arguments as to whether or not it was considered on-topic or well-posed, as evidenced by the commentary and oddly balanced number of up/down votes. Even though the help center explicitly names questions about "life as a PhD student" as within the scope of the Academia site, and the "work-life-balance" tag exists to cluster these types of questions, many close votes followed after a high-profile user warned that the question veered into "boat programming" territory. The consequence of that post was a lot close votes in what really seems like a follow-the-leader effect.

While I understand the boat programming concern, and on stack overflow boat-programming-type questions are obviously too broad and vague, for "work-life-balance" questions on Academia, they actually seem relevant, if not appropriate. Furthermore, there is a strong precedent for these kinds of questions in Academia, primarily the ones inquiring about marriage and kids during a PhD; that is, other questions pertaining to the graduate student lifestyle. In my question I linked to these.

The point of this meta post is twofold:

  1. For one, I would like to have my original pet post reopened. I have struggled with wasting time due to a sort of "isolation daze" during my PhD and I think having a canine companion could help me break out of that funk, but first I would like to hear from the community's experiences as to whether it may be ill-advised to do so.
  2. Secondly, I would like to start a conversation about the whimsicality of close votes. On many occasions duplicates, hyper-specific questions, and other violations of the help center's policies stay open and are answered, while other times questions that seem that they should be valid are closed quickly. It often seems that the idea of "relying on the community" devolves into follow-the-leader: a high-reputation user votes to close and others follow suit. While in theory that should be fine, I believe there is an inherent arbitrariness to that method. For one, this process assumes that these leaders see every post. But more importantly, it also assumes that these users abide by the defined guidelines of the site. I would argue that often long-time users have developed their own opinions as to a questions validity, and, to be honest, I think it's one that is often biased by viewing a lot of crappy posts. As a result, the bar for entry ends up being inappropriately raised and shifted away from what is stated by the terms of the site.


Is there any disagreement to these points? If to my first point, please articulate why my post was off-topic and justify it with a clear guideline. If to my second point, I am eager to understand how we can fix this, whether by appealing to change the stated site rules or by adjusting the voting system.

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    To me, you made your point - your question fits what I read into the help center description, and it's completely analogous to marriage and kids (self-chosen life actions impacting your life as an academic), as you point out. I voted to re-open, but this is probably not leading anywhere as people tend to be dogmatic (and arbitrary) about the mentioned meme. As to (2) - idea is good and well, but will not lead anywhere. – gnometorule Mar 16 '16 at 19:20
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    There's a lot going on in this meta post. Personally, I agree that there is not enough consistency in how the scope is applied, and this frustrates me. I disagree that you question was closed because of a "follow-the-leader" effect, though. I think the 10 users who voted to close that question thought about it carefully and decided that they consider it to be out of scope, not just piling on – ff524 Mar 16 '16 at 19:42
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    I offer no opinion on whether the post is on or off topic, but I'll note that "follow the leader" close voting is intentional. When a post acquires a close vote, it goes into a queue where people interested in closing questions can look at it and cast their own votes. – TRiG Mar 16 '16 at 20:26
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    From my experience, "follow the leader" works for both VTC and downvotes. – Franck Dernoncourt Mar 26 '16 at 16:20

As the "high-profile user" mentioned in the question, I want to point out my thought process.

I worded my comment very carefully, saying that it was starting to veer into boat programming, rather than saying it was definitively boat programming. What I should have added to my comment was that I wasn't seeing the academic-specific nature of the question that would make the question on-topic here instead of one of the other SE sites, such as The Workplace. Getting married and having kids are not quite comparable, because these are "major life events" that also have very specific and unique ramifications in the academic world—extension of deadlines for "early career" applications, adjustments to teaching and research schedules, time to defense, and many others. The change between a grad student owning a pet and, say, a Wall Street financial analyst owning a pet is not as clear to me.

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    For the record I wasn't trying to call you out. No insinuation was meant. You were just the first comment of the type this time, but I've observed it happening with some regularity among many users with high-reputations – marcman Mar 17 '16 at 0:33
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    That's partly because of how the system works. My moderator status means that if I voted to close, the question would automatically close, with no further votes needed. I wanted to express my concern, though, so that's why there's a comment. However, noting that 20 people upvoted the comment suggests that there's some merit to the statement. – aeismail Mar 17 '16 at 15:25

In regards to point 2, first I want to that historically SE communities do not like when users cherry pick example questions as justification as to why their question is on topic. Second, the apparent follow the leader effect is an artifact of the review queue. When a user votes to close a question or flags it, the question is added to a review queue that is available to high rep users. These users can then agree or disagree with the close vote/flag. The same thing happens when someone votes to reopen a question.

Finally, community moderation is not perfect. Sometimes (fairly often) the community misses questions that should be closed. This is one of the reasons we don't like when users cherry pick example questions. Sometimes (on our site fairly infrequently) a group of users close something the community thinks is on topic. Apart from duplicates, the system does not let regular users act unilaterally and it provides mechanisms to undue the effects. As you have done here, it is perfectly reasonable to ask in meta or chat what is going on with a question. You can even flag it for moderator attention.

In regards to your first point, I would suggest you edit your question to demonstrate why it pertains to life as a graduate student and not just to life in general. The questions about marriage and having children are not truly about those massive open ended topics, but rather the specifics of how marriage and having children affects being an academic.

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