Holding my own with the big boys and girls


Coming from a teaching institution, I consistently push against the stereotype that I can’t be as good as someone from a big research institution.

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking in a symposium along with a couple of the most prominent people in tropical biology. There were other good, non-famous, people there too. It was great fun, and I gave a damn good talk, even though the topic was slightly outside my normal line of research. After the conference, a periodic collaborator of mine told me that I was able to “hold my own” with the high-powered crowd. This was clearly a form of congratulations. Keep in mind that this is a person who I’ve known for over fifteen years.

What I thought, and didn’t choose to say, is: “That’s a funny thing to mention. Of course I did. Why would you think otherwise? Would somebody think that I might not be able to?”

If I worked at a big research university, nobody would have ever congratulated me on “holding my own” in the presence of more esteemed scientists. I would just be expected to fit in. If anything, my presence in the symposium should indicate my enhanced stature, not a temporary ability to be acceptable in the presence of the great ones.

Why didn’t I tell my buddy that this compliment wasn’t a compliment? Why didn’t I say that he revealed his own bias, or his own low expectations?

I didn’t say anything because it wouldn’t do any good. I’d sound petulant. Some might say that I’d be looking for an insult where one was not intended. (Perhaps that what readers are thinking now.) Perhaps it would give the false impression that I’m unhappy.

I don’t see the remark about “holding my own” as a personal insult because I understand that it originated from a bias against my employer rather than against my work. This is especially the case because this colleague is in an entirely different subfield and I doubt he’s read many, if any, of my papers.

In that symposium, there were many people in my sub-subfield in attendance, who are quite familiar with my work. I don’t know what they were thinking, and I’m not going to ask. All I can do is continue to show again, and again, and continually, that I belong. Maybe one day, my colleagues won’t have to compliment me on holding my own with the big boys and girls.

8 thoughts on “Holding my own with the big boys and girls

  1. Good post, Terry – these stereotypes are really quite important and pervasive and really do affect ‘how’ scientists behave towards one another, and often these behaviours are not intentional. The different ‘tiers’ of Unis are often being discussed in Canada (e.g., from research funding, to University rankings), and institutions are constantly being button-holed as X, Y, or Z, and by extension, the Academics working within the institutions are similarly assumed to be representative of these categories. This assumption is, of course, dreadfully wrong. Of course you belong! It’s a bloody shame that ‘where people hail from’ has any role to play in assumptions about a person’s capabilities. Sigh.

  2. Do you suppose this bias is predicated on logic like this: 1) If you are presenting research through a major venue, you enjoy/prioritize research. 2) If you enjoy/prioritize research, you must want to be at a ‘major’ university with minimal teaching responsibility. 3) Therefore, you were not able to get a job at a ‘major’ university and must have some deficiency relative to those who did.

    If true, I’m guessing #2 is where the problem is. A number of talented researchers may intentionally seek non-R1 jobs. Just because research is important to you doesn’t mean nothing else is, and some circumstances may make one more productive at schools in lower tiers.

    However, this bias doesn’t seem entirely unfounded. It seems to me that there are probably many cases of people who consider themselves to be excellent researchers who fail to deliver on this and wind up with a marginal research program at a subpar university. But this does make me wonder how many faculty fit that category? I’d genuinely like to hear the estimated percentages (based on subjective assessments) from folks with experience non-research intensive schools.

  3. I was afraid you’d ask something like that. I have a hard time defining it and was hoping to skirt around that issue in favor of interpreting it intuitively.

    I suppose my original intention was “subpar with respect to research output.” As you have talked about often on this blog, not every school treats research as such a high priority, nor should they (I’m the product of a little liberal arts school myself). It doesn’t make them subpar schools, generally, but they can be considered to have minimal research productivity. Not necessarily a bad thing, but from the perspective of peers who prioritize research, it could be conceived as such.

    There are certainly excellent schools at all levels of academia, and there are also worse schools at all levels. Worse in terms of resources available to students and faculty, teaching effectiveness (granting that it will vary among individual professors), research productivity, collegiality and happiness of staff and employees. Some of these will matter more at different levels (a good R1 from the perspective of a graduate student or faculty could have poor undergraduate teaching). I’ve been in departments where there was a tangible feeling of animosity among the faculty, with dissatisfied students who thought their professors ought to be fired, and substantial time directed towards research that is rarely published and likely contributes little to scientific progress. I admit that a lot of this is subjective (who am I to say whose research will be of lasting value?), but I’m guessing we could all agree that there are many colleges/departments that we would readily classify as “subpar”. Working a those schools may raise the eyebrows of colleagues, but in the context of the discussion I’m really only considering those whose shortcomings are in terms of their research – I imagine working at a school with a dysfunctional faculty but solid research would not have caused you to receive the same kind of patronizing feedback on your work.

  4. I think I may be the one who gave you that “compliment.” I know that I spoke in the same symposium as you did. We both spoke before John Terborgh gave the final talk of the session. If someone told me I held my own with the likes of Terborgh, Robin Chazdon, and some of the others in that symposium, I would have take that as a big compliment. The thing I love about science and the thing I tell my grad students, it does not matter who you work with or where you work, only the impact the science you do has on the field.

  5. And, from you as a person, I know it was well intended and, in the context of our history, I see it was clearly intended as a compliment. I do think that someone other than myself, with the same level of seniority (14 years post-PhD, Associate professor), who runs a lab a bigger/fancier/better funded institution, might have not seen it as a compliment. I wouldn’t have been inclined to tell the same thing to you because, well, it’s obvious.

    I happen to disagree that only the science affects your impact on the field. I wrote about this a couple months ago:

    I am fortunate to have supportive colleagues, and you’re a rare blessing because of your honesty and clarity, and you’re one of the few people whose remarks I could post (anonymously) and realize that even if we disagreed, we’d still be buddies.

    Do I have a chip on my shoulder about how I’ve stayed research active while working out of a teaching-intensive campus? Perhaps. I wouldn’t be the best judge of that. If others perceive it, then it’s got to be the case. It clearly is an issue for me; if I did not make it an issue, then I wouldn’t be able to get any research done. The mission of the blog indicates that I spend lots of time thinking about what it’s like to be a researcher at a teaching institution, and my reason for creating it is because most R1 researchers and grad students are not directly familiar with these issues. I’ve put myself out there as a imperfect example of how it is possible to get real research done while working in a place where this doesn’t happen and isn’t valued. I’ve tried hard to discuss both the professional and personal challenges tied to my situation, and to date any critics who might think that my attitude is misadjusted have mostly kept to themselves. As the site is continuing to grow, I imagine it won’t stay that way for long.

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