Difficult Chairs and Difficult Faculty

Apr 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Sometimes the relationship between chair and faculty goes smoothly. Great. All happy families are alike.

But sometimes the relationship doesn't. And while all unhappy families are different*, there are enough commonalities amongst the causes of unhappiness to make it worthwhile to think about what those causes are. This is the second post following up this one about difficult faculty and chairs.  I just got an email from the woman mentioned in the previous post. She's not in my department, and I'm not on her mentoring or tenure committee. Her email was long and it was bitter and it made me sad. I wrote a response, trying to help, parts of which I include here.  She started with the idea that she has "been given special rules that apply only to her". My first response to that was:

How do you know they are rules only for you? Have you discussed this with everyone else? But, indeed, part of what a chair does is try to develop a pathway for each faculty to achieve tenure. I just want to encourage you not to have a chip on your shoulder, to subtract the personal & emotional out of your interactions with your chair. Really & truly chairs want faculty to succeed.

I know this is not always true. I know that there are toxic chairs, and vindictive chairs, and just plain problematic and insecure chairs. I do not have statistics to comment on frequency. But I know this chair, and he's not toxic or vindictive, just of strong mind in a department whose historic issues predate this woman's problems by years. And despite my current struggles with my chair, I do believe that my chair is on the balance a good chair, who really has the backs of the junior faculty in this department. That he and I disagree about how to support said faculty, has come to be par for the course, for me. But it really is in the self-interest of a chair or head to see jr faculty succeed. The ability to see someone as being both good and bad is a hard won skill for me.

But in my response, I went on to ask the question: do you want this job? For lots of readers here, the answer is "of course". But this is an older woman, who has done a lot, including lots of government and NGO work setting up programs for underprivileged and undersupplied, etc etc. She could do that stuff. She's had a successful career that led her back to academics.

Again, the decision to stay, the decision to work towards tenure, is yours. But if you do, you need to ask, both yourself and your chair: What do I need to do to get tenure? It’s sometimes easier when one is 25 or 30 and an asst prof, because one tends to be in a often much more in a “teach me mode”, then when one has lived a lot of life, done a lot of things, and seen even more. But, there is a lot about academics that you, Molly, don’t know, you can’t know, because you were busy doing all those other things for years.

When you get to be 50 or 60, sometimes it's easy to know what you don't know. Maybe easier than when you are young. But sometimes, when you get lumped with the 20 and 30 year olds, it's not. I've had trainees of different ages and background who really think they know better. I've had friends with trainees who struggle with the ones who know everything. Yup, I know there is a lot that *I* don't know. And if you asked Molly, the young faculty, she'd say "of course, there's lots I don't know, but ..." and in that but lies here problems.

You need to ask yourself: what am I doing right and what could I do better? Not just about the interactions, but about the stuff you are doing professionally, towards the development of your dossier. Part of your relationship with your chair, part of making him your ally, is to have his answers to that question.  It’s hard to hear the “what could be better” part, but if you don’t, and if you can’t hear it to move forward, you won’t get tenure.

You also need to try and see this more from the chair and department and school perspective. Not *this* chair in particular, but what *a* chair in general would be saying.

In general, for any problematic relationship, understanding the other person is helpful. Not saying I'm good at it, or I always succeed. But the insights can make a difference in solving the problem.

And keep your perspective on just what the heck is going on:

One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school. Your job may not (although, again it can) be about what you want to do, it is about what the department needs done, and sees as its mission. If your goals and department goals align, then it works well. But if you have goals that are not part of the department’s mission, you will end up being very frustrated, and have a less than optimal relationship with the chair, who is setting the agenda of meeting the department goals (which in turn is usually in answer to what those in leadership have decided).

There are plenty of snowflakes who know better. And you know what? When they move on to something else, both they and the chair, and probably the department, are all happier.  Again, ask yourself: do I want this job? And the corollary is: am I willing to do what it takes to get it and keep it? That's the meta question here.


 

*Did you know that there is an Anna Karenina principle in statistics? I was looking up the quote and found this:

In statistics, the term Anna Karenina principle is used to describe significance tests: there are any number of ways in which a dataset may violate the null hypothesis and only one in which all the assumptions are satisfied.

And yes, there are some department chairs that will never be satisfied.

15 responses so far

  • Sam says:

    "One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school. Your job may not (although, again it can) be about what you want to do, it is about what the department needs done, and sees as its mission."

    I like your words.

    But I like the Ernest Rutherford principle in statistics: "If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment."

    Although that isn't frequently useful in biology. 🙁

  • potnia theron says:

    sigh. Its A-sciences vs. B-sciences. True for large swaths of chemistry and even molecular biology.

    But the natural world is all about subtlety.

  • B. Kiddo says:

    So true, Potty. I wish I had had the wisdom to say these things to a person in my department. All her anger about all the injustice saps all her energy and focus, and writing papers is just not happening. *sigh*

    The quote that Sam likes above is a great one. Also struck a chord with me. It really helps to understand that when applying for jobs, too. It's not about how great the job would be for you the applicant, but how you the applicant can fill the niche and get done what needs to get done.

  • chall says:

    Many good things to think about and well written. I also agree on the overall premise that most chairs want their faculty to succeed. Sometimes it's purely selfish because it makes them look good, sometimes it's because most people aren't mean on purpose....

    Your: "Your job may not (although, again it can) be about what you want to do, it is about what the department needs done, and sees as its mission. If your goals and department goals align, then it works well. But if you have goals that are not part of the department’s mission, you will end up being very frustrated, and have a less than optimal relationship with the chair..."

    I have a had longer conversations with a coworker last couple of months since they are unhappy in their job. I've been trying to be supportive but two weeks ago I ended up telling them "what do you want with your job?" - partly since I've finally put together the words they've been saying and linking it to the job they are hired to do. It's not the same thing so the frustration is because they should really find something else.... or adjust their expectations to the job. (It's not TT and it's not a faculty job, which in theory should make them more amendable to looking overall for new jobs.) I'm hoping they will take a new look at the job and see what they want with it all. A lot of their time and effort would be better spent that way.

    • potnia theron says:

      Really, I think sometimes just asking oneself the basic questions make a huge difference. Are you happy? What do you want? What would make a difference?

  • Ola says:

    You've written countless posts of this type over the years, all of them great. They fall into a broad category I would call "people who just don't get it".

    Overall, I guess what shocks me most from years of reading this stuff, is what shitty "mentoring" these people are getting before they arrive at yor doorstep. It's hard to believe there are (still) such truly awful early career mentors out there producing these waifs. What a sucky situation, for these folks to get to a certain (often very late) career stage, so utterly unprepared!

    • potnia theron says:

      I think there are cases of folks without advice/mentoring.

      I also think there are a lot of folks who don't know that they *need* mentoring or help. And lots of times older people, coming into a 2nd career fall into that category.

      I had a grad student once...

    • potnia theron says:

      I think there are cases of folks without advice/mentoring.

      I also think there are a lot of folks who don't know that they *need* mentoring or help. And lots of times older people, coming into a 2nd career fall into that category.

      I had a grad student once...

  • Anon says:

    I guess you can lump me in with the "people who just don't get it." Of course, being in a similar position as Molly some years ago, I decided to ditch Academia and go use my talents elsewhere. So sad to see the reality of what Academia is these days. Maybe it was always this f***ed up.... But I think being older and more accomplished means you're willing to put up with a lot less BS. You also know yourself better and can more quickly figure out when it's really not you but them.

    "But I know this chair, and he's not toxic or vindictive ....."

    Yes, a lot of people think they know others well. They think their next door neighbor is just swell ... until they find out he's a murderer or a pedophile, etc. I hope Molly will continue to trust her gut about her chair and not yours.

    • potnia theron says:

      I am not sure why you chose to see things only Molly's way? Identification? Is there no way that she could be wrong about this?

      She had made the choice to come into academia, for all sorts of reasons, most of which are good, and nearly all of which are defensible. It's not what she thought. But that doesn't change the fact that she has a choice to make about what she wants to do. Is it worth to her to stay? Is the cost to her too high? What I am trying to do is help her frame the questions and figure out how to answer them.

      As for the chair, I've worked with this chair, and I've seen him in many situations. I do have issues, but I have also seen him work for things that would cost him politically because he thought it was the right thing to do. Yes, there are people we do know and people we don't know. I think this is a situation where I do know better than Molly, and, importantly, I care about her and her future. I've got nothing at stake with her- she's in another department.

      Not everyone, and in fact, not most people, are murderers or pedophiles. Sometimes they have different agendas and priorities from us. But no matter who or what this chair is, my statements to Molly remain: its not about how you feel about him. Its about whether you want to stay in this department, in this job, and what are you willing to do to stay? That decision is one every person makes for themselves.

      • Sam says:

        Anon, what specifically do you take issue with in Potnia's advice? I'm not quite getting it. She's providing an outside perspective here from an experienced person who knows all the players and some of the history. Why do you think Molly's perspective is more likely to be correct?

      • Anon says:

        I trust Molly's perspective because unlike you or Sam, she is the only one who really knows what's happening to her. I have no reason to assume that at her advanced age, she's too green not to get it. Academia may be new to her, but working with people I'm sure is not.

        If I were Molly, I don't think I would find it the least bit helpful for someone to tell me, "I just want to encourage you not to have a chip on your shoulder...."

        I believe that you are trying to be helpful, but I think you are perhaps too focused on (or blinded by?) her anger. As you wrote last time, "I didn't even have to hear the words. I heard the tone. She is angry." Telling someone who feels that they have a right to be angry not to be so angry is not particularly productive.

        Are you trying to justify your own choices by telling her that she, essentially, just has to play along if she wants tenure? How do you know she won't achieve it by doing what she thinks is right? Some people cannot be made into allies, and it is a *huge* time and energy sink to keep trying. Perhaps it would be better for Molly to take this approach to tenure:

        https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/

        since she likely has other options outside of Academia.

        • potnia theron says:

          Yes, but *she*, not me, wants the job in academia. She did a lot to get this job. I didn't say "don't have a chip on your shoulder", I said "evaluate the alternatives".

          And actually, there are times when anger is either inappropriate or ineffective or both.

          There are also people who make the decision that they want a career in science so much that they will do what is necessary to make it work. But part of my message to Molly, and to young people around me is to make that cost/benefit decision with your eyes as wide open as possible.

          I didn't say "leave" or "stay" to her. I asked her to get beyond the emotional response to make a careful, nuanced decision based on facts.

          As for justifying my own choices: don't make me laugh.http://mistressoftheanimals.scientopia.org/2015/10/13/repost-hard-thoughts-about-the-death-of-old-farts/

        • Sam says:

          So no need to seek advice from dispassionate, experienced people with an outside perspective, gotcha.

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