I feel let down and (right now) rather upset about how I've been treated by an academic at another institution. Any tips for how I manage my (unavoidable) working relationship with him going forward?

I'm a PhD Student in a small subdiscipline (only 2-4 of us in this country). He is a (moderately) established researcher and for him this is just one string to the fiddle. We've met a couple of times at conferences and organised a symposium together last year. I invited some of my non-academic network who are wonderful collaborators.

After the symposium we discussed further work together. He asked if I would assist with chairing a (broad discipline) conference, and I was excited about us working together, thinking how great it was to have a good relationship with someone who was more focused on our subdiscipline than my supervisors are, and looking forward to post-PhD collaborations. I felt he was 'taking me under his wing' and that my expertise would be highly useful to him.

Since then, the role we had discussed for conference organisation went to someone else, without him informing me.

And I've found out he has been putting together a project proposal with my wonderful collaborators, without mentioning it to me. Naively, it never even occurred to me that someone would do this. It seems particularly weird because geographically I'm located right next to these collaborators, and there are plenty of similar organisations in his area that he could have reached out to.

Right now I'm feeling pretty raw about this. (But perhaps this is on me? Was I simply too trusting?) But we are organising another symposium together. Undoubtedly we will cross paths again in the future, and will be reviewing each other's work.

Any tips on how to manage this relationship going forward? Or other tales of betrayal to help me put this in perspective?

  • 2
    There is a possibility that he is using you. But there is also the possibility that he thinks the other symposium you are organizing together is 'enough', for whatever reason. Don't assume the worst, but be careful and don't too quickly dismiss warning signs.
    – user21820
    Nov 1, 2018 at 10:05
  • 3
    I would think the saying: "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me", has it completely covered. There's untrustworthy people on practically every street-corner looking to take advantage of you if you let them. Unless you are asking how to attain something else from the relationship what can we possibly advise that isn't the obvious? Cease letting them. Nov 1, 2018 at 16:17

5 Answers 5


Until you know a bit more, I'd start with a generous interpretation. Academics can be forgetful. They (we) can lose things like contact information. This interpretation may not be warranted, of course, but it is usually worth starting as if it is. It may be that what you were thinking of as fairly firm commitments, he was just musing about. It doesn't reflect well on him, of course, but your best way forward is to assume it is benign (for now).

Send him an email reminding him of past conversations and suggest that you are interested in collaboration. Send whatever support information you think useful. Go visit in person if that is feasible. Remind him of those conversations and your memory of them, but without being accusatory.

You will learn a lot from the response. In particular, you should learn if the generous interpretation is the valid one. I don't know that you have a lot of recourse, however, if he is a bad actor. But if not, you may be able to get the ball rolling on this or a similar project.

If he is a bad actor, you should probably have a conversation with your collaborators about how he treats them and try to figure out if you are treated differently. You and your collaborators can, perhaps, come to some understanding and even create a support group.

On Forgetfulness

One of my mentors, great person, great teacher, used to know when he was "working hard enough" when he would lose his car. You would find him wandering through the university parking lots looking for it when it was time to go home. Not a bad actor, but not always dependable.

  • 9
    Lovely anecdote and a reminder of how crowded academic brains can be, storing penguins or whatever else.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 31, 2018 at 22:46
  • 4
    There is a famous story about Norbert Wiener here: jcdverha.home.xs4all.nl/scijokes/10.html#Wiener_6
    – Buffy
    Oct 31, 2018 at 22:55
  • 10
    Academics are not exempt from universal values such as "keeping your word" and "do unto others as you would have others do unto you".
    – user32882
    Nov 1, 2018 at 7:08
  • 2
    @Buffy About Wiener, I once read that someone stopped him asking him a scientific question. He answered verbosely, and after that, he asked if he was walking in this direction or that? He was sold the direction and answered "Ok, then I just came from the canteen and am not on the way there". (all from my memory and roughly translated)
    – glglgl
    Nov 1, 2018 at 14:25
  • 2
    @user32882 I think you are missing the point which is that assuming malice where there is none is riskier than the opposite approach. That doesn't excuse the behavior, but it gives guidance to how the OP should think about responding.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 1, 2018 at 15:43

For these kinds of situations, you should apply Hanlon's razor:

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

In this situation it is entirely possible that this person simply forgot that he had previously had you in mind for the conference role. If you are disappointed in this outcome then a reasonable first step would be to make a polite inquiry with this person, asking whether they still have you in mind for a conference role. Maybe you're right that he is being "sneaky", but until you have exhausted other possible explanations, I would suggest that you don't jump to the worse possible interpretation of the situation.

  • 7
    Of course you could swap the words stupidity & malice....
    – Solar Mike
    Nov 1, 2018 at 6:22
  • 1
    Normally, I would agree. But the process of conveniently forgetting where one has ideas and contacts from is a tad too common in academia to be pure stupidity. Rather the hypothesis of stupidity/clumsiness provides "plausible deniability". Nov 1, 2018 at 7:47
  • 4
    @SolarMike But that defeats the purpose of the suggestion. The point is to not assume it's an act of malice; because making that assumption usually would lead to the more serious consequences. It doesn't mean you shouldn't consider and be prepared for it being an act of malice. Just assuming everyone who messes up is being malicious can make you really cynical really fast.
    – JMac
    Nov 1, 2018 at 18:36
  • 2
    Of all the places I see someone quote Hanlon's razor, it's weird that the majority of the time it's in relation to something happening in Academia... Perhaps here we should use "Never attribute to stupidity that which is adequately explained by conflict avoidance." Nov 4, 2018 at 10:09
  • 1
    @WetlabWalter Indeed! "Conflict avoidance in conjunction with taking advantage reinterpretation of unformulated assumptions to one's convenience." Nov 4, 2018 at 19:10

That story sounds sinister, and more often that not, this is a kind of appropriation of other people's contacts which some privileged people permit themselves do to less privileged ones.

I have seen such attempts of rerouting contacts even done by peers to peers. It requires some skilled manoeuvring to prevent such a "hostile takeover" of productive contacts from being successful.

However, in their position, OP probably has no other option than to make a friendly face to a distinctly unfriendly move and pretend that they had been in on that particular plan from the beginning.

I would recommend to OP to at the very least to try and be present at the event. If they are bold, they could perhaps suggest some official role in it, but without showing the least grudge. This would be the politically adept move, even if, from the point of view of personal satisfaction, quite dissatisfying.

  • 1
    Yes, I think one has to realize that it is true that a significant proportion of established researchers do engage to some extent in playing a social game or even manipulating people whom they consider 'inferior' to them. The fact that you used the phrase "productive contacts" shows how often contacts are thought of as a means to an end (research output), which in turn is driven by the publish-or-perish paradigm.
    – user21820
    Nov 1, 2018 at 10:01
  • @user21820 I used the word "productive contacts" in a thoroughly non-judgemental way. There is also the phenomenon of take-over of friends; this is emotionally very unpleasant, but harder to achieve. Friends may not so easily be swayed as professional contacts. Nov 1, 2018 at 10:43
  • 1
    My point is not that you were judging anything, but rather that the common focus is on producing research output rather than just collaborating to do science. Your last comment also backs this up, because it implies that a significant fraction of professional contacts are not good enough friends that they would not so easily be swayed.
    – user21820
    Nov 1, 2018 at 11:43

Offering someone a part in the project (e.g. conference organisation) and then taking it off without notice is not great. "Bad memory" does not serve as an valid excuse here — such roles are important enough to be put on paper and not messed up with.

Your point on collaborators seems strange to me. You don't own people. You established your relations with your network and these relations are still here. For some reason, your collaborators agree to work on a project with someone else and without you. It's their decision. I would reflect on your role in this group. What did/could you offer to collaboration and why do you think it was not valued enough by them to include you? You can also directly ask them about it.

I would not blame anyone for "stealing" my collaborators — unless the collaborators are currently supported from my research budget. People make connections for specific projects, and these small groups tend to change after each project is done.

  • 1
    Of course, since abolition of slavery, one cannot "steal" collaborators. What it means is that one creates the contact with a reasonable expectation to be part of the loop, and then is cut out. If a company has clients, they are not owned by the company, but still the company considers the client list an asset that is not easily shared with 3rd parties. Nov 1, 2018 at 7:51
  • 3
    @CaptainEmacs However it seems that all collaborators decided to cut OP out, not just Prof Sneaky. Nov 1, 2018 at 8:25
  • 1
    Well, opportunism is more convenient than having "style". In my own affairs, I make a point of involving the person initiating the activity, no matter their status; I have seen above dynamics quite a few times, and it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth, even if I have very rarely been affected myself. There is always something underhanded about a project that it is initiated by someone who is then cut out without strong reason. Nov 1, 2018 at 8:38
  • @CaptainEmacs Unfortunately, not all people are like you. Nov 3, 2018 at 18:27

I'm going to assume the worst scenario, and judging by the answers above, you should assume the best. But, you need to know something about Academia.

You can be nice and amenable, but you need to stick up for yourself too. That doesn't mean you need to express malice, grudges and be a bad sport. Use this to your advantage. In the long run, you need this person right now as a supporter. So be positive, be nice (not that you shouldn't be always), make sure you're on his good side.

Why? Because that's the benefit, you need him more. The issue is about you, and making sure you're protected and you won't lose from this. Make sure that your gains are your own and that the person concerned won't be able to double cross you. Protect yourself and use your relationship with him to your advantage.

I'm not saying you should be acting with malice and with regard to avenging your grievances. No. I'm saying be a good person, honest, and transparent when you need to be, but protect yourself from him and see this as a business relationship - nothing more.

In the long run, if you're going to collaborate with him, you need to be wise, and you need to have clear boundaries and guidelines of how to work with him so he won't have the tools or ammunition to walk all over you. That will take some skill at navigating. It won't be easy, but it will protect you.

When you're in an academically more mature, authoritative place, then things might be different, but until then, hope for the best, protect yourself and assume the worst, but act as though he didn't affect you.

Emotionally I understand that you're feeling slighted and hurt. It is natural, you invested time and energy in the relationship, and you worked together on something mutually beneficial. This is why in future dealings you need to protect yourself a bit, and this will help you to develop a thicker skin. Create some boundaries, and also, regard this as a relationship that is a purely work and business related. Then you won't feel so hurt if it doesn't work out.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .