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In academia, there are sometimes sort of "feuds" between different researchers. For example, one such situation is described here: https://www.quora.com/Mathematicians-What-is-the-story-behind-the-feud-between-Shing-Tung-Yau-and-Gang-Tian?share=1

Lately, something like this has affected me. People I work with will bad-mouth other researchers in our field, or other researchers will bad-mouth people I work with. Sometimes, they will say that so-and-so's results are trivial or that they stole the results from someone else, or that they got a lot of help from a different mathematician and aren't actually very talented. The bad-mouthing seems to happen on both sides and seems to be born out of a kind of vicious competitiveness. Here are some of the ways this has disrupted my PhD:

  1. I am really paranoid about people's intentions and even though it seems like, from the outside, that my PhD is going very well (going into my third year I have one publication already and am making good progress on other projects), I am certain some people in my own university even, have the impression I am not a very good mathematician because they think my advisor is a fraud.
  2. I have recently had the opportunity to work with someone from the "other side" of this conflict and have not yet told my advisor about that. I am afraid she will be very angry with me if/when I do. To complicate things, my advisor has told me some of her research ideas in the past and is extremely secretive about them. I just don't have the same sense of secrecy about my own research ideas. Luckily I don't work on what my advisor works on but she still might be quite upset that I've been "talking to the enemy" so to speak.
  3. Although no one has directly been "mean" to me the ways in which I have seen people try to tear each other down has contributed to my total disillusionment with academia and made my field seem like a place where people compete for reputation rather than trying to do real work motivated by curiosity rather than ambition. It's just very depressing and stressful to imagine having to deal with this kind of thing.

As a young PhD student, I am shocked by the way the "adults" in my academic life behave. My instinct is to pretend this doesn't exist and focus on my math. I do not make any judgments about who is right and generally shut my ears whenever these topics come up. To some extent, it seems very inappropriate to me that my professors and collaborators discuss these kinds of things with me at all. Furthermore, I think one reason I have been successful as a PhD student is because I am very friendly and open to people. This has allowed me to learn a lot and collaborate with a lot of people despite having little to no contact with my advisor most of the time (we are on good terms, she just doesn't really make time for me).

These conflicts seem to have been started long before I was even in college so from my perspective, it has nothing to do with me, it's not really my business, and I don't even pretend to know all the details of who did what and why. And yet people I respect a lot gossip to me like school girls as if they are trying to convince me of a particular position.

Question: Has any of you had to deal with this kind of mean-spirited competitive research environment? How did you handle it? Should I avoid working with people "across the aisle" in order to stay out of conflict with them? Am I being naive to try to be friends with everyone and not hide what I'm working on like it's a secret recipe?

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    "My instinct is to pretend this doesn't exist and focus on my math." Your instinct is right. Keep your head down, do your work, graduate, and get into a nicer community. If being "naive" works for you, keep doing it until you have to stop doing it. Oct 11 '20 at 22:39
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    This isn't an answer to your question, but boy does it seem like a bad idea to avoid telling your advisor about a current collaboration. Eventually the paper will get finished and your advisor will know, so I'd really suggest talking about it sooner rather than later. Oct 12 '20 at 2:40
  • @NoahSnyder Yeah... that could be the topic of another post. To be fair to myself, I probably would have told her by now if she would meet with me about research but she never makes time for me and hasn't responded to an email about research since pre-covid. She only talks to me when it involves my TA duties and doesn't seem mad at me or anything then but still... it puts me in an uncomfortable position.
    – user128124
    Oct 12 '20 at 2:42
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    @pictorexcrucia: Yeah, I don't mean to blame you or say it's your fault, and I see why you'd be worried. But it just sounds really bad given the rest of the context. Oct 12 '20 at 2:46
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    Academia has a culture which is quite different from other fields. Although similar things happen, I would think people would deal with them in different ways. Also, the advisor-student relationship is quite unique, as is the job market. I think getting the perspective from more experienced researchers actually in academia is extremely important given these facts.
    – user128124
    Oct 13 '20 at 23:41
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The same happened to me. I stayed friendly towards everybody and participated in both groups. I think it worked for me. It leaves all doors open. I think a key point is never agreeing with any bad-mouthing, ever. Sometimes this is socially difficult. I would play dumb and say "Oh" or "I understand", but never "You're right" or "Yes, totally".

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    "Interesting" is my reflex reply to gossip and bad-mouthing. I also keep the Spanish proverb at the front of my mind: "Those who gossip to you will gossip about you."
    – Jason
    Oct 14 '20 at 0:29
  • @Jason What's the proverb in Spanish? Oct 14 '20 at 0:33
  • I wish I knew. I've only seen it written as "Spanish proverb". I just tried to google up an answer, and could only find "Spanish proverb" or "Lebanese proverb". Anyone reading this would be perfectly justified speaking behind my back about my carelessness with citations. :)
    – Jason
    Oct 14 '20 at 0:39
  • "Participating in both groups" only works if both groups keep sufficient good judgement to tell who actually is their enemy. I have seen academic feuds where participating in both groups could very easily lead to you being targeted by both, or at least get splash damage from both. My normal reaction is to disengage from both feuding groups - but this may not be practical if the conflict encompasses most of your field or academic unit...
    – xLeitix
    Oct 14 '20 at 5:32
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If you're in mathematics, then these kinds of feuds are unusual enough that the best strategy is simply to move to a different subsubfield that doesn't have them. (If you're a PhD student just starting research, just do something else; if you're more established, it's fine to gradually move into a neighboring area.) Even if you manage to succeed despite the feuds, other capable mathematician will avoid the area, and hence the area will become less popular over time.

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    It seems odd that you 'd suggest that the feuds of others should drive you out of a research area.
    – Buffy
    Oct 11 '20 at 18:45
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    @pictorexcrucia: You don't have to make a sudden break. When you choose your next project (and it sounds like you're at the point where you have more ideas for projects than time to work on them), one of the factors you should consider in your decision is whether the project is affected by the feud, or takes you in directions not affected by the feud. Oct 11 '20 at 19:10
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    @AlexanderWoo "Toxic old men" - sorry, but I have seen quite my share of toxic academic battlefields produced by quite different genders of quite different ages. I recommend leaving the dissemination of prejudices to political agitators. Oct 11 '20 at 22:45
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    I feel the need to point out that it actually makes me uncomfortable when a person (usually a man) brings gender into a conversation when there was no real reason to. I am of course aware that there are situations where "toxic men" perpetuate unwelcoming environments, but it is weird to have attention drawn to my gender without any reason for that. In my question, I don't think gender plays a roll and I think my advisor is just as guilty of these bad behaviors as the men in my field. I don't think I mentioned anything about gender in my question... Women can also be competitive to a fault.
    – user128124
    Oct 12 '20 at 1:02
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    The really specific action item in the direction of this answer is to try to find a postdoc advisor who is outside of this conflict. It still needs to be someone near your research, but often there are people who are nearby research-wise but sociologically have their background in a different subfield where the conflict isn't as relevant, or even just were educated on a different continent and thereby avoided the conflict. Oct 12 '20 at 2:31
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Has any of you had to deal with this kind of mean-spirited competitive research environment?

Yes. It's REALLY not that unusual, and it's very unpleasant. Some academics are very unpleasant human beings. There is sometimes a tendency to put academics on a pedestal, because they are intelligent, but that doesn't stop them from being, sometimes, remarkably flawed individuals from a human/ethical/emotional perspective. (It's not you, it's them)

How did you handle it?

Don't bite the hand that feeds you (your main allegiance should ALWAYS remain to whoever is funding you) Keep your friends close, and your enemy closer (you want to know what the lab next door is up to, so they don't publish something you want to publish just before you publish it... Or at least you can change your angle early so that your contribution remains original) And if you can't beat them, join them... (collaboration is a safer choice in the long run than bitter competition)

Building collaborations is very useful, and making friends is good (and these are two separate things, even if there can be an overlap!), but be wary of politics, it NEVER goes away. You may think everyone is good friends, up until discussions on who should be "first author" turn up, and then it's WAR (except in Maths, where thankfully, the order is alphabetical... Can't understand why that's not universal!)

Should I avoid working with people "across the aisle" in order to stay out of conflict with them?

Depends. Maybe for your own mental health, if interactions are really unpleasant. But I don't think that's necessarily wise in the long run. Even from a selfish "self-preservation" perspective, it's good to know what the competition is doing...

Am I being naive to try to be friends with everyone

Being friends never hurts. Just remember friends can also be competitors. And friends don't tell each others everything.

and not hide what I'm working on like it's a secret recipe?

I don't know if you're being naive. Collaboration and dissemination is very much in the spirit of Science. But from a pragmatic perspective, scientists are competing for scarse resources (grant money...), so be careful who you share information with, and don't disclose more information than you need to (until you've established whether the person can be trusted)

Maybe think of it as a Prisoner's Dilemma. Honest mutual sharing is mutually beneficial, not sharing at all is harmful (and everyone loses in the long run)... But sharing assymetrically (giving without receiving) will mean you get screwed, and other benefit unduly. The best strategy, IMO, is to start with cautious good will (share harmless bits, see if other reciprocates) and build from that. You will soon discover who is worth interacting with, and who isn't.

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    -1 "your main allegiance should ALWAYS remain to whoever is funding you" Like any person, funders are capable of being: unethical, immoral, abusive, obtuse, misguided, unfruitful, discouraging, and just plain not someone one happens to get along with.
    – Alexis
    Oct 12 '20 at 16:41
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Sometimes it's reputation, others legitimate disagreements; if latter, you may gain a lot by sticking around. For example, I wish there was a professor in my University who disputed existence of "voltage" in a circuit, or complained about explaining convolution only from the output-side. It takes plenty of work to disagree in an educated manner, and you'll be reaping their fruits in much less time.

Naturally if they expect anything of you in their disputes (except asking politely whether you agree), I defer to the other answers.

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I'll guess that this is pretty common, actually. It was certainly true in the place I earned my doctorate. There were a couple of factions. They might be research based or some other division, such as politics or religion.

Usually the feud is fundamentally based on some topic or idea, I'd guess, though it may not be universal. If you have to deal with people from different factions, just avoid all discussion around that topic, whatever it is.

One of the reasons for this in academia is that most people who make it to senior faculty positions are smart. Being smart they think a lot of their own ideas and, to often, might think less of other's ideas. This can spill over. And extreme levels of competition just adds to the problem.

Just deal with these sorts of people transactionally on the things and ideas you need and not on the hot-button topics that set them off. Don't agree or disagree with them. Just step away as needed. Since the are smart, they may have something to offer you as long as you stay in the safe zone.

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    Sometimes it's not avoidable. When you go up for tenure, your chair is going to ask experts in your area for letters, and there's a fair chance that they won't know any better and end up asking someone who will write that you're a terrible mathematician and shouldn't be granted tenure under any circumstances without even reading your work, simply because they hate one of your coauthor's guts. If the people reading the letter and evaluating you for tenure are astute, they might figure out what's going on, but possibly not. Oct 11 '20 at 19:31
  • @AlexanderWoo, I suspect (a) that that is rare and (b) a person who would do that likely hurts themself more than anyone else. Call it out if you see it happening. Don't cower under the bed.
    – Buffy
    Oct 11 '20 at 23:50
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    I am surprised by your statement "One of the reasons for this in academia is that most people who make it to senior faculty positions are smart. Being smart they think a lot of their own ideas and, to often, might think less of other's ideas.". In my experience, the exact opposite happens. The smartest people I've met were also, without question, the humblest.
    – Stef
    Oct 12 '20 at 12:27
  • @Stef, yes, that happens too.
    – Buffy
    Oct 12 '20 at 12:40
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Full disclosure: I recently obtained my PhD and have no experience whatsoever in similar situations within academia. My answer below is an approach based on what I've observed in other social groups where similar things take place.

Edit / Warning: Please read Captain Emac's words of caution in the comments regarding the advice given here.

I think there are two stages to this problem. First one is as a student and the other one once you graduate and get a postdoc.

As a graduate student I would avoid interacting with the other group. If any person you're working with found this out you would be considered a traitor and so on. So for now just continue doing what you're doing and focus on graduating.

Once you graduate there's no single person who has as much power over your career as your adviser did during your PhD. I believe at this point you can openly communicate with your own group that you don't want to take part in these antics. Request to keep the badmouthing to meetings where you are not present and so on. Establish clear limits when it starts happening. You will have to do this with both groups. It might even be a good idea to have a face-to-face conversation with your adviser at this point.

This will solve one of your issues, however, it will complicate your life in other ways. The people most involved in the conflict will probably try to shun you out. However, as long as your contributions keep being valuable this hopefully won't be a bigger problem(*).

It's likely that the older and more established members of each group will distrust you. However, I'd bet the younger folks will be more open to follow your steps; or at least don't try to punish you for what you're doing. They must be as uncomfortable with the situation as you are.

(*) It sounds like you're doing great so far, so I don't see why this shouldn't be the case moving forward!

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  • I'm not sure the part about the supervisor is good advice. After the Ph.D. you usually still need reference letters for a while. A tenure-track application without a reference letter from the supervisor will raise a few eyebrows. Oct 12 '20 at 6:24
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    The advice is dangerous. There are some people who can get away with an assertive position. However, these people will not in general need help from SE. This field is in a bad shape, socially. OP will have to fight against the collective if following this advice. Not a good idea in general, and quite possibly career-limiting. OP should at the very least be warned of that. No, the "younger folks" will not necessarily be more open. This is a bet with long odds on a political shift. OP should first establish a foot in an adjacent field permitting them to leave if they want to play this game. Oct 12 '20 at 10:17
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    Thank you for your comment, @CaptainEmacs !! It's always interesting to hear the perspective of more experienced invidivuals. In this case it's something I'll keep in mind.
    – user347489
    Oct 12 '20 at 18:08
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What you are describing is a situation where by analogy you are stuck at home and mommy and daddy (the ‘adults’) are arguing a lot. You are afraid that mommy will be angry with you and you describe yourself as being paranoid about other people’s intentions. In other words there are, as you perceive the situation, at least two causes for your getting anxious, upset, even depressed. Some contributors have recommended experiential avoidance which is not ideal but if you choose to do this you still have to confront why this situation is making you feel so anxious. According to much traditional philosophy and modern knowledge of psychology (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in particular) it is easier to change your perspective on things than the things themselves. When you do this you find the problem is not in the situation or in what other people are doing and saying but in your distorted way of looking at what they say and do. What are you telling yourself that is making you so anxious? It is likely you are engaged in mind-reading (other people’s intentions) which is not evidence-based or that you are catastrophizing which is a kind of fortune telling and again not based on evidence. You have to put some of your assumptions about yourself to the test and you also might want to get your feet wet by talking to your supervisor and geting that relationship on to an honest footing instead of second guessing what each other is thinking. Phd research is both an outer and an inner journey of discovery and I do not believe many young researchers realise this until later on in life. I recommend ‘The Feeling Good [about Yourself] Handbook’ by Dr David Burns Phd which requires some more homework on your part including completing Mood Logs on a daily basis until you have thrashed out your own ‘invisible’ contribution to the problem. This will put you back in the control seat and enable you to sit with the adults in the room as another respected adult, possibly also as a friend to some.

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    "It is likely you are engaged in mind-reading (other people’s intentions) which is not evidence-based or that you are catastrophizing which is a kind of fortune telling and again not based on evidence." I appreciate your answer, however, in this case I do not think it applies at all. My anxiety is a rational response to humans being hostile to each other and I have plenty of evidence that I am not making it up. The reason I am "paranoid" is because how I fit into this and how other people fit me into it is unknown.
    – user128124
    Oct 12 '20 at 13:36
  • I do agree that I should talk to my advisor however, there is nothing dishonest between us. I just haven't talked to her in a while. Furthermore, I do not really suffer from not feeling good about myself beyond the very normal doubt most PhD students of math often feel. I don't think there is anything pathological about that. I am an overall happy and confident person so I'm not sure that completing "Mood Logs" would somehow lead to me being respected more.
    – user128124
    Oct 12 '20 at 13:38

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