Monday, August 15, 2011

From the PhD Files: Ego and the Douchebags of Science

During my short time in the field of science, I’ve met some interesting folk - many people from many walks of life, with very different personalities who converge in the lab on a daily basis.
It makes for an interesting workplace, but one trend I have noticed, is that scientific research and ego are very closely linked. I guess it is because science is one field where to get anywhere, you pour your soul into your work, you want to be proud of what you publish, and your reputation is EVERYTHING.

When some anonymous reviewer rips you apart, your supervisor is not happy with your work after months of data collection and you get knocked back from a job or funding for the 1000th time, you tend to become thick-skinned. This can been seen as confidence, or in some cases, arrogance. However for the most part it’s a demeanour, built up to protect oneself from the constant onslaught of criticism. Finally achieving that elusive scientific success can breed arrogance, and when you are at the top of your game, a touch of arrogance is actually acceptable – you’ve made it, you are an expert and you have the publications to prove it! But what is more worrying is just the lure of a career in science can attract folk who have a point to prove. Some people are attracted to the field because of the image it portrays, that the moment you say you are a scientist people comment with “oh it takes brains to do that”. Scientists are put on their own pillar in society, of being knowledgeable, and the field is shrouded in a type of secrecy – people in white coats scurrying around, talking in their own terms, working on everything from DNA to galaxies.

In reality, science is mainly about hard work, with a touch good luck and whilst you do have to have brains, getting into science to promote the fact you are somehow smarter than everyone is not an approach that generally confers success. This is where ego and science actually clash – it’s a career of dedication, and those who get in it just for the glory don’t usually go anywhere. In my own personal experience, I’ve encountered a few of these types, and I can say, I’ve moved on pretty quickly, usually because I’ve got an experiment on the boil which needs attending to. I don’t have time for these people, because I’ve found like in most fields, a PhD doesn’t prove you are smart, it doesn’t prove you are a good person, and furthermore I’ve found some of the most intelligent people have never set foot on university campus. PhD can mean respected, it can mean intelligent, but it also can mean douchebag.

Lucky, it’s not hard to spot these types. Usually they are the ones who are all style and no substance – often talking up whatever it is they are working on, bragging to their friends who aren’t in the field that they work on this that and the other. They are rarely seen in the lab, and when they are, they are sponging off the people who actually know their stuff because they would rather be talking up their project than actually doing science and researching things for themselves. Unfortunately my work crosses two fields which seem to attract these types – forensic biology and ancient DNA. Forensic science attracts the douches because they think they are then next Gil Grissom, and ancient DNA because well, it is freakin’ cool to say you work on ancient Romans, mammoths, Neanderthals or any other awesome long-dead or extinct being. What isn’t exposed in either of these fields is how difficult they are – forensic science must meet legal scrutiny which poses its own sets of challenges and limitations, and in ancient DNA, the field is tiny so if you annoy anyone, you are blacklisted EVERYWHERE. Furthermore for every success in ancient DNA there are about 1000 failures – samples are hard to come by, DNA is sometimes too degraded, and sample sizes are always small, making analysis difficult.

What the douchebags don’t seem to realise is their holier than thou attitude actually is damaging to the field. Because egos are inflated, self-worth often takes precedence over actual science, and as the big ego is the one who has to be in charge, collaboration is often difficult. Cutting down students to make yourself feel better is not the sign of a good supervisor, and can quickly turn the best student against any further career in research. Criticism is essential, but simply trashing something to enforce a sense of superiority will ensure the best minds get out of the field. Furthermore, these types play into the image of the stereotypical image of the arrogant intellectual. In an age where promotion of science against false information and woo is critical, the last thing the field needs is egos perpetuating an image of arrogance and superiority to the general public. The egotistical scientist is looking for the easiest way to get up their name up in lights, to solve the case and to be deemed the hero of the day. So grant proposals go nowhere, the science is often not the best it could be, and who really wants to support or work with someone like that?

The interaction of people and ego manifests itself in different ways. Aside from the usual egotistical douches, there is also the realisation that when you start a PhD, you go from knowing everything to knowing nothing. The best way to deal with this daunting task is to get stuck in. Afterall, the sooner you read, the sooner you do lab work, then the sooner you can start to know something. However, in my time as a student, I’ve come across a more emotive response. And my thoughts are that it’s linked to the type of person who is doing science to prove a point and to feed their own belief they are somehow smarter than the rest of the world.

I believe in collaboration, in sharing ideas and knowledge – we all have troubles in the lab, and the times I’ve come across people who have solved my problems and saved me weeks of pain. I've noticed in my short time in the sciences, that this seems to be the most successful approach for getting the most out of funding and collaboration and getting the best science out of often limited resources. If I can share something I know which saves one other person time and bashing one’s head against the brick wall, then talking about my experiences, piping up in lab meetings and putting forward suggestions is worth it. However it has a downside – that when an ego who maybe is new to the PhD game hears it, it unsettles them. Rather than do the hard work and learn, they feel threatened.

I’m sure the psychology behind this is fascinating, but I find this type of confrontation hilarious. Rather than work on getting hold of knowledge or doing actual science they attack the people who have knowledge. The funniest has to be the name calling; usually it’s something ad hominem, that you think you’re the boss, that you’re better than all of us etc. etc. Of course it’s nonsense, and for a person of any sort of substance, it just makes them shrug and move onto the next experiment or paper that needs writing. This childish name-calling comes from that insecure person’s ego, because it challenges their notion that just because you’ve gotten to studying for toward a PhD, you’ve made it. The reality is quite far from this, and another person who is supposedly on the same level but actually is about the science is so unsettling, and so threatening to their superficial notions they have to call names. It doesn’t matter this person may have been there longer, or farther into their candidature, or has put the hard yards in. The saddest thing is, the egotistical individual refuses to accept that science is about the effort, and those hard yards, and the image of intellectual grandeur is just an illusion.

Hey at least the hat is cute.

At the end of the day, substance threatens superficial. And there is always someone better than you, either in your field, in your department or your lab group. Rather than trying to prove to the world that you are a ‘scientist’ it’s far better to be a decent person, to help, to be approachable and to work your backside off – for the more knowledge and experience you have, the closer you are to getting published, and if you are lucky, a bit of recognition. There are bad apples in all walks of life, and science is no exception. We have the talented, the inspiring and of course, the douchebags. But one thing is for sure; science really is a career where you get out exactly what you put in.

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