43

In a comment to this answer, rocinante wrote:

And while I get that the site is heavily skewed to ignore or shut down any hint of criticism of professors in academia, rosy pictures of idyllic collaborations do not serve anybody who is not in that ideal position. If the questioner was in the ideal position, they wouldn't have a problem in the first place.

While I disagree with the strong wording in the comment, it made me wonder.

  • Are we in fact presenting an idealised view of academia, where professors are always helpful and competent, where advisors and mentors only have the best interest of their mentees in mind, and where research is always about contributing to the body of knowledge and never about politics?
  • If so, is this a good or a bad thing?
  • If it is a bad thing, can it be changed and how?
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    I think this is a very good meta question, that will likely (and hopefully) incite some good meta discussion. I don't understand the motivation to down-vote... – posdef May 8 '14 at 11:22
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    I feel a lot of the answers I see are the old "speech in the answer" problem you see in a lot of academic conferences or cross-disciplinary faculty meetings. We all know we're smart, that's why we're professors. But I guess some people can't but help showing off. – Dave Kanter Jan 22 '15 at 18:11
21

In my time in grad school and beyond, I've seen my share of strife and suffering, to the point where even though I've been lucky enough not to struggle too greatly myself, I can appreciate (if not necessarily empathize) with people having troubles.

Therefore when I answer, I try to distinguish as far as possible

  • what we would all like to happen
  • what typically happens
  • what should NOT happen under any circumstances (even if it's sadly not rare)
  • what is completely abnormal.

And in all cases, the evidence presented for the actual situation should be more important than abstract principles, mainly because every situation is different in important ways, and concrete evidence should carry weight.

Coming now to the actual cases,

  • The first element is not so much idealized as wishful thinking ("I wish my advisor would give me research problems all ready to solve") or ("I wish my advisor behaved like a rational robot all the time") and so on.

  • The second element is the one most susceptible to bias, in that we're talking about what we think is the typical case, and as I've discovered, different communities have very different notions of typical, and that's a good thing to be aware of. In that sense, I've learnt a lot.

  • The third and fourth elements are very important though especially for students going through something relatively alone. It's very important that there are people who can tell them that a situation is just wrong as opposed to being "normal", and I think we can fairly do that even if these wrong situations are not unusual. Pointing that out isn't presenting an idealized view but is identifying (a) dysfunction and (b) ways to "Run, don't walk".

Ultimately many of us on this site are academics. We wouldn't be in academia if we didn't at some level perceive value in the profession we're in, and so we can't help but take a rosier view of things.

  • +1 for splitting idealism/reality into 4 meaningful options and appealing to solving a particular problem rather than idealized abstraction. – Piotr Migdal May 8 '14 at 10:53
14

Not sure who the "we" is in your question. Assuming you're referring to people who answer questions on this site...

In answering questions, "we" are trying to provide hints as to how the student/advisor relationship should work. Is that idealized? Yes, and intentionally so. In most cases, the question is asking whether the behavior is normal ("ideal") or abnormal ("not ideal"), and the answer provide that clarification.

The comment you quoted, though, suggests that "we" intentionally avoid posting any criticism of academia and/or academics. This is far from the case, as can be seen by simply browsing the front page at any given day. Many academics are wonderful people, and many are absolute jerks, just like in any other environment. If the commenter has a problem with a specific question, they can definitely bring it to our attention via flags or posting here on meta, but the general accusation seems unfounded (to me, at least).

  • "we", as in "we, the academia.SE community". So yes, I meant the people that answer questions, comment, ask questions, etc. – xLeitix May 7 '14 at 12:03
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    Why do you identify ideal with normal? If something bad is common, it's normal . – CodesInChaos May 8 '14 at 12:26
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    @CodesInChaos - I was thinking about that as I was posting it, not sure it's the best way to phrase it. The problem is that I'm using "ideal" as in "the way it should be", not "extraordinary". I was using the terms used by the OP, but it may not be the best word choice. – eykanal May 8 '14 at 14:06
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Chiming in on my own question after reading previous answers and giving this a bit more thought.

Are we in fact presenting an idealised view of academia?

I think we do. Don't get me wrong, most of what is posted here is fully accurate, but I do think there are some neuralgic topics on which the general opinion here seems to be much more optimistic than my honest impression of the reality:

  • Advisors generally have the best for the candidate in mind
  • Researchers generally are really concerned about research ethics
  • The chances that certain applicants have in the gradudate school / postdoc / tenure track market

The reasons for this may be three-fold.

Firstly, I would argue that people that made terrible experiences in academia are by and large underrepresented among our top posters, simply because those people usually leave academia pretty quickly. The people that stay (and choose to engage in a network like academia.SE) are the ones that have not been burned by terrible advisors or some such. That does not mean that counterexamples are rare out there.

Secondly, at least for myself, I can certainly see that I am sometimes posting how I would want the academic world to work, and not how it always presents itself. It is hard to admit that, e.g., in my work life, the question of who becomes a co-author often has much more to do with politics than the absolute merit of contributions.

Thirdly, I think the more theoretical fields (maths, theoretical CS, etc.) are a bit overrepresented here, and I think that hard reality in these fields approximates the academic ideal more closely than, e.g., in applied CS.

If so, is this a good or a bad thing?

I have thought long and hard about that, and I tend to agree with Fomite, Mangara and others that this is in fact not a bad thing in itself, at least as long as it does not lead to actively bad advice. In the end, there is no point in by default assuming that something abusive or unethical is happening whenever somebody comes for advice, as, in all of these cases, the suggestion will be the same (JeffE's trademark Don't Walk. Run.).

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    There also may be a self-selection bias that people here who have been burnt possibly tend to be reluctant to relate their experience in a detailed enough way to make it helpful, e.g. if the other part of the burning is still an important person in their small field. After all, this is not very anonymous (even with anonymous login) and the answers are completely public (even officially licensed that way). – cbeleites May 24 '14 at 15:04
10

I'm not sure who the "we" is in the question. There are broadly two categories of people on this site, namely senior people (faculty) and junior people (postdocs and students).

A lot of questions here seem to be by students and post-docs who have problems with their advisors and P.I.s. Often these problems seem quite major. It is difficult to draw any conclusions from this, however, since the people writing this are after all self-selecting, and may not be representative. (After all, junior people relatively rarely write to talk about how wonderful their advisors are, and how well things are going.) One hopes such questions are not representative, of course. In any case, it is possible one gets a worse than actual view of how bad academia is from more junior people.

On the other hand, I think perhaps the senior researchers have a better than average view of how good academia is. For at least a couple of reasons.

First. senior academics are people for who things, in general, have gone well much of the way. Maybe there has been some bad stuff, but not much. My observation has been that in academia, partly because it is quite stratified and hierarchical, that it can be difficult to recover from bad things. If you have a couple or more bad things happen, it can easily seriously jeopardise your chances of a good career. For the obvious reasons, because bad things makes the probability of more bad things in the future, and conversely good things happening make the probability of more good things happening in the future. Of course, this is true of life in general, but in academia, in my experience, it is particularly true. You are expected to be in a particular place at a particular time in your life, given certain educational attainments, and people are intolerant if you are not. In any case, people who have had a reasonably good time in a system tend to think the system works well, because it worked well for them.

Second, the senior people who post here are, sort of again by a process of self-selection, not your typical academic. Typical senior academics typically don't spend time on a question/answer site about academics. Virtually all senior academics I've known would have fainted dead away with surprise at the suggestion that they do so. For lack of a better word, I think the senior academics here are "nicer" than average. Therefore, I think there is a tendency for them to think the better of the academic world in which they reside. Basically, they tend to think other academic people are nice too. Maybe because the other academics they choose to associate with are also reasonable, functional, people? I know this is a bit speculative, but I think I have observed this phenomenon on this site.

I don't think that presenting a unrealistic or distorted view of academia is a good thing, of course, but I think some distortion in inevitable, if only for the reasons I mentioned.

  • I agree with your assessment of the "niceness" of the average senior person here. I wouldn't call it "being nice", though - I think it is just that people that feel a strong desire to help out the next generation of researchers are also more likely to show up here than more self-centered professors. – xLeitix May 8 '14 at 21:53
  • @xLeitix Fair enough. What adjective would you prefer then, if any? – Faheem Mitha May 8 '14 at 21:58
  • I don't know, helpful maybe? – xLeitix May 9 '14 at 6:32
9

I don't think so… while some questions & answers deal with “what should happen in this situation” (theoretical and ideal workings of academia), the site also abounds with questions on real life in academia, the system's shortcomings, how to handle them, etc.

To be more specific, and follow your example: we have plenty of useful questions and answers on how to behave in certain specific situations which are very far from the norm (crappy colleagues, cheating students, unhelpful supervisors, professors that try to evict you from the university, ethical shortcomings and utter failures, etc.).

9

When someone comes here to ask for advice in dealing with others, it often falls into one of two cases:

  1. Everyone acted in good faith, but due to miscommunication or other circumstances, problems arose.
  2. Someone acted in bad faith and caused problems.

While Case 2 does happen from time to time, the large majority of answers here address Case 1 (the 'idealised' scenario). There are good reasons for this:

  • For someone answering the question, these two cases are nearly indistinguishable. The questioner is usually the 'wronged' party and as such naturally biased, so even if the questioner is convinced that others are acting in bad faith, this is not necessarily true. In fact, the easiest way to discover that the problem is in Case 2, is to try and apply the Case 1 solution.
  • The appropriate response to Case 2 is typically to escalate the problem by appealing to a higher authority, or to get out of the situation altogether (Don't walk. Run.). This should be a last resort, as it can easily burn bridges.

As such, I think that yes, most answers present a somewhat idealised view of academia, but that's because it results in better answers.

6

To echo the sentiments of other posters, I don't think we're presenting an idealized view of academia - and indeed, regularly acknowledging that academia is full of petty nonsense and bad behavior.

What are are often presenting in answers to "What should I do..." questions is a general stance that abuse, exploitation and poor mentorship are not normalized behaviors that, if someone is experiencing, they should just accept as their fate.

I don't think that's a bad thing.

5

I think that sometimes "we" do.

I do understand very well that some people may have not met certain problems (either they had careless personal experience or their faculty or group didn't have such problem). But it does not mean that they are non-existing.

Similarly, if someone has issues with advisor (I know little people who have none... every relationship has its own problems) I dislike answers implying that advisor does and wants the best. Sure, some of the answerers are great advisors but it does not yet mean that it is true for all others.

There are many very symptomatic answers (or comments), of the form "Just ask your advisor.". Well, I guess if it were the case this site would not be needed that much.

Or another short example: https://academia.stackexchange.com/a/20419/49. You had great PhD experience? Great! All of your friends as well? Great! But it does not imply that it is true for everyone.

0

I think this will always be a problem as long as most top-ranked users link to their department website in their bios. Most academics don't want their colleagues reading their controversial, academia-related posts, so they keep their posts idealized and benign.

  • Personally, I would never use my real name on this site (my display name comes from a textbook). It wouldn't be as fun if I had to keep my posts sanitized. – Ben Bitdiddle Jan 16 '15 at 3:23
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    I'm not sure that's a fair assumption... my hunch is that there's much more likely to be a problem of survivorship bias and selection bias. There is also some significant community bias: there's just not enough money in the more theoretical areas that are best represented here to really stir up a lot of the nastiest behavior that appears in other areas. – jakebeal Jan 16 '15 at 4:13
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    And to your other point... I wonder if we can get Alyssa P. Hacker to sign up too... – jakebeal Jan 16 '15 at 4:13
  • @jakebeal Yeah I don't think it would be healthy for failed academics to keep visiting this site and dwelling on their pain. And it's really easy for successful people to be idealistic IME – Ben Bitdiddle Jan 16 '15 at 4:17

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