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If you take a look at the various questions on Academia Stack Exchange where abusive, rude, or unpleasant situations are presented, I feel there's often a culture of dismissal. Many comments and answers always try to play devil's advocate, for example:

  • Trying to find a reason why a supervisor may only seem abusive but are actually just doing their job (and maybe their character is just not very friendly);
  • Excusing rude behavior such as harsh criticism with no constructive feedback simply because it's commonplace in academia;
  • Often proposing to give bad situations two, three, and more chances because giving up is shown as a lack of desire to grow in character (often for no reason but just "because it's bad to give up on a situation").

Only the most extreme situations usually result in answers that directly mention leaving the situation or going to the authorities (e.g. sexual assault).

But a look at similar situations on Workplace Stack Exchange paints a very different picture. For example, an abusive manager is never tolerated and most answers (rightly) point out that nobody should be the target of abuse and there's a general consensus to direct people to leave abusive situations as soon as there's a clear indication that they cannot be resolved properly. There is no merit in staying in a terrible workplace and fighting through it, sometimes it is just better to leave and find a better place.

Why do these complaints receive such different treatments on these two sites?

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  • 2
    This conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 30, 2021 at 18:42
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    Comments were flushed, but since I've decided to vote for closing, I'll repeat that the question can't be answered usefully because it rests on a false premise.
    – henning
    May 31, 2021 at 18:26
  • @henning (and other close voters), I tweaked it very slightly to maybe be more on-topic without invalidating any answers. But I still strenuously disagree with almost every assertion nevergo made and don't wish my non-edit to be seen as endorsement. May 31, 2021 at 21:48
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    Shouldn't this question be on Meta?
    – shoover
    Jun 1, 2021 at 4:03
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    Since this question is closed, I'm going to write my answer here. First of all, this fact that this question is closed itself describes what's going on in academia. So, take it from here. I think you have a pretty big false assumption here. You are seeking the level of behavior, consideration, and treatment from universities to their students similar to what corporations do in relation to their staff. It's wrong from the beginning. Students are not employees of the universities. They are customers of the universities. This is the big difference here... Apr 11 at 20:36

16 Answers 16

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I suppose I disagree with the comparison between Academia.SE and Workplace.SE and your three points in general, but there's an answerable question here. I also agree with cag51's points that we (and at Workplace) always only get one side and that perhaps a bit of devil's advocacy is alright. Here I am writing from the perspective of US/Canadian academia.


But to get to the main issue:

[On Workplace,] most answers (rightly) point out that nobody should be the target of abuse and there's a general consensus to direct people to leave abusive situations as soon as there's a clear indication that they cannot be resolved properly. There is no merit in staying in a terrible workplace and fighting through it, sometimes it is just better to leave and find a better place.

As I mentioned in a comment, Workplace is full of software engineers, who tend to enjoy a favorable market in terms of employment. This means that for them, it's often very easy to apply for jobs and find a new one in weeks.

Why doesn't this work in academia?

  1. If you want to stay in research, it's really hard to move at almost every stage of your career.

    1. Academia is still heavily invested in the school calendar. If I was unsatisfied with my program, I would have to wait until the next fall to start somewhere. That's if I decided to leave in time to apply for another program (typically almost a year before starting; contrast this with employment). Even if I short-circuited the application cycle, I would still start in the fall.

    2. And the chance of transferring to a school nearby - so as not to disrupt your life incredibly - is close to zero, unless you live in Boston, maybe. Most people, upwards of 90% have already relocated for grad school, so doing that again is a hard-to-overcome stressor.

    3. Finally, PhD-to-PhD transfers are very rare and stigmatized, so people want to avoid them.

  2. Leaving a studentship is much harder on your career than a job.

    1. As cag points out, changing could mean delaying by a year (which is costly), but most importantly, people select programs based on their fit for their dream project. I'm speaking generally, but I came to my program because of the resources. Finding the same resources elsewhere is not the same as finding a more-enjoyable 9-to-5.

    2. Do I fully support this model of academia? No, but you can see why someone would tolerate more to study something they're passionate about instead of deciding to quit running networks for Company A and instead run networks for Company B.

    3. If I left my lab on bad terms, I would likely lose access to the data I have spent years building on. So poof goes a whole pile of projects. Whereas when you leave a job, those projects are someone else's problem. My career would be affected by leaving a bad situation much more than a random HR person's (just to pick on a different job).

Lots of people are passionate about their jobs, sure, and they would likely tolerate a crappier boss compared to someone who just sees their job as a 9-to-5 (which is totally OK). It's that in academia, everyone is expected to be that person, and so you can see what it may seem that what's easy to quit over in industry is harder in academia.

Finally, I haven't even touched on the hierarchical nature of academia. If you want to work in some field, probably your professor knows all the other professors in the same field. Upsetting them could - or feel like it could - basically get you excluded from the field of your dreams. Whereas employment networks are much larger and your line manager has much less sway over where you end up next.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 29, 2021 at 17:39
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    "PhD-to-PhD transfers are very rare and tend to make people suspect a problem." Great point magistrally proving OP's point 3 absolutely true.
    – EarlGrey
    May 31, 2021 at 16:22
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    @EarlGrey "often proposing to give bad situations two, three, and more chances because giving up is shown as a lack of desire to grow in character" this point? I'm not sure I see the connection May 31, 2021 at 17:35
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    @AzorAhai-him- if you transfer form a PhD to a Phd, it means you are "giving up" on a bad situations (who would transfer if in a good situation?). People suspect a problem = this is the issue: the people suspecting a problem, not the problem itself! It is a problem when someone transfers from a PhD to a PhD, but it should not imply anything else that the Phd-Supervisor relation was not a good one, like a employee-manager, forcing the employee to resign. However, in the industry it does not carry that much of a stigma as in the academia.
    – EarlGrey
    May 31, 2021 at 19:34
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    @EarlGrey I suppose I see how you got there, but that's not what I mean. PhD-to-PhD transfers are stigmatized, yes, which traps people in their current program, which is why someone might think we say "give it two, three, and more chances" because the cost of transferring is so high. To be clear, I don't think that happens at all. I have never seen someone accuse a poster here of some sort of lack of character growth. If you think I am somehow on the side of "not sticking it out is a sign of poor character," that's absolutely not what I meant. May 31, 2021 at 21:45
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At the end of the day, it boils down to two reasons:

  • Academic jobs are very specialised. You need a very specific experience to even start a project and then you often spend up to a year to really get up to speed. Moreover, PhD students (and many postdocs) additionally need somebody similarly specialised to supervise them.

  • Academia projects often have a long duration with a pay-off at the end: You have to get familiar with a specialised field of research (see above), plan and conduct a complex piece of research, write a paper on it, have this paper go through an (often long) peer review, often do some more work in light of the review, have it reviewed again, and published. And only after publication it is a serious contribution to your academic CV. Something similar holds for PhD degrees: You have to finish it to be worth anything. Two half PhDs don’t make for a full one.

As a result, you cannot simply switch jobs: A specialised job market is small. While this affects supply and demand equally, you almost certainly have to move when switching jobs and it may take some time till a fitting job pops up. Many people in academia start looking for their next jobs years before their old contract runs out for this reason. Also, when you have not just completed a project, you wasted quite some time from a CV perspective. Finally, your potential employers (i.e., professors) are aware of the long time it takes to get you up to speed and are understandably very hesitant to hire somebody who may not complete the project.

Thus, leaving an academic position may very well be a move that ends your career (at least within academia) and may also lead to regret of not finishing a project on the long run. Therefore, many academics are more willing to tolerate bad conditions – not that this excuses them.

Finally, a few words on your observations regarding advice given on this site:

Many comments and answers always try to play devil's advocate, for example:

  • trying to find a reason why a supervisor may only seem abusive but are actually just doing their job (and maybe their character is just not very friendly),

We had several situations in the past where it turned out that a complaining student severely misjudged a situation or even behaved blatantly misbehaved themselves (and just consider how often we never get to know these things). Of course there is a fine line to be walked between advising reasonable caution and victim blaming here.

excusing rude behavior such as harsh criticism with no constructive feedback simply because it's common place in academia

Non-constructive feedback is inexcusable in almost any situation, but putting a high scrutiny on somebody’s work is indeed necessarily common in academia. Both my personal experience as well as some questions we received show that some people have problems with this, no matter how you phrase the feedback.

often proposing to give bad situations two, three, and more chances because giving up is shown as a lack of desire to grow in character (often for no reason but just "because it's bad to give up on a situation").

I would not phrase it like this, but as reasoned above giving up is generally a bad career move in academia. For example, enduring a few more months with a moderately bad supervisor to finish a PhD is usually sound advice. Of course, at the end, the student needs to decide the lesser evil for themself, but it would be negligent not to mention the career consequences.

Also, no supervisor is perfect and given the strong individual dependence on supervisors in academia, supervisees will get to feel the imperfections more strongly (same applies for the good sides). This is different in most industry situations, where you have lesser dependences on more people.

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Just one more point I've not seen above, academia has a severe and increasing pipeline problem, with only a small number of permanent academic position compared to the number of students and postdocs. This leads to the buyers market problem as highlighted by several people, but also a strong survivorship bias, where any toxic behaviours perpetuate themselves because the few who remain in the field tend to be those who tolerate or benefit from them. Young people drawn to academia are also, in my experience, particularly vulnerable to this type of survivorship bias because often their early educational experience was to be outstanding and to succeed where their peers failed. Of course, by the time you're in academia, chances are that you are just as outstanding as anyone else.

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    A very telling point, Guest. And it's often that the other PhD students or Fellows - ambitious in the meanest sense of the word, couldn't care less for education as enlightenment - are the agents of nastiness and hierarchies promoted by a insecure and vain academic.
    – Trunk
    May 30, 2021 at 12:35
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    @Trunk Ough, glad I’m not getting my PhD where you did. In my experience, there’s often a camaraderie between those going through similar experiences, especially when they have to deal with similar or shared challenges cascading down from the whims and predilections of those above.
    – Greenstick
    May 30, 2021 at 23:36
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    @Greenstick I agree that PhD students are often close and supportive to each other. However, there usually is a postdoc job for each PhD who wants it (there's a voluntary attrition rate here which I think is about 50% and relieves the competitive pressure). Then next step (postdoc to permanent) is where the squeeze comes, and where friendly relationships break down. I have seen several (former) friends devolve into kill-or-be-killed backstabbing and exploitation of others. It worked, and they got the jobs, and hence the survivorship bias and the reinforcement of these behaviours in perpetuity.
    – Guest
    May 31, 2021 at 8:49
  • @Guest That’s fair, I can see how it may change through career stages. That said, I was responding to the comment by Trunk that specifically took a darkened view of ‘PhD students or Fellows.’ Sure, every grad school experience is different — but I strongly disagree that these people aren’t in some sense doing it for knowledge. If a program drives people towards toxicity and distractions that come with it, I wouldn’t expect it to produce high quality research consistently. I’m also quite perplexed by his attack on research in Oregon; it’s frankly without merit.
    – Greenstick
    May 31, 2021 at 19:30
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Academia shares features with at least two other industries which are notorious for abuse of the coalface workers by their bosses: fashion and (especially) Hollywood.

All of these industries run on insufficiently supervised patronage, and this is a well-worn pathway to widespread abuse. "Close" relationships between young hopefuls and their backers on the inside are required for a successful career, they're all competing for very few shots, and the expectation of this is ingrained in the culture. The relationship is obviously wholly unbalanced and the powerful side is granted fairly unconditional paternalistic trust to act, while the low percentage chance of success becomes a stick to drive the powerless.

"That's the culture, this is what you signed up for, I call the shots without oversight but it's your fault when you (probably) fail".

If you set up a situation like this where something as important as prestigious career prospects are dangled in such a precarious way, over naive newcomers to a seller's market by the established insiders acting with carte blanche behind closed doors, abuse is inevitably fostered.

UK politics has been reported recently to foster similar bullying and harassment issues, for largely the same reasons. I fear what politicians, academics, etc. call "networking" and "reputation" is just coercion and nepotism. Roll on open science and disinfecting sunlight.

EDIT: Here is a relevant site which I just found, full of sources: https://elephantinthelab.org

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    This is a great answer. I think those examples are actually quite a bit worse than academia, but I think they illustrate the point very well! May 29, 2021 at 18:38
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    I am all for open science, but I don’t see how it would address this problem.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 29, 2021 at 18:44
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    @Wrzlprmft - you are clearly not in medical research is biological research... I'm not saying that deliberately bad reviewing behavior is the default, but everyone I know has competitors (there they see them as opponents is down to personality), no one would dream of submitting a grant or paper without excluding several people from, and I think more of my projects have been scooped than not. May 30, 2021 at 23:30
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    You could add professional sports to Acting and fashion and politics. May 30, 2021 at 23:31
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    @IanSudbery: I freely admit that I am far from your typical representative of those fields (but then, who is?), but for whatever it’s worth, I spent my entire academic career at institutions that either hand clinic or biology in their name so far and have not encountered the stance you describe.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 31, 2021 at 5:16
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Behavior is a function of consequences. Tenured professors can get away with a lot of negative behavior because they face no consequences. Thus the throwing of chalk and keys and shoes or what have you at students by prestigious professors at prestigious places is tolerated, until there is sufficient moral opprobrium. Until there are consequences, unethical and unprofessional behavior among tenured faculty will persist.

This also applies to CEOs and other leaders. Look at Bill Gates. He stole ideas from other people. Look at Martha Stewart. Did she suffer from not honoring her commitment to Macy's? Did anything negative happen to Bill Gates after unethical episodes? None that anyone can see.

People are motivated to overlook negative behavior as a one-time event. Also, as colleagues, they depend on each other. And professors will not express dissatisfaction with their colleagues because it damages the reputation of the department, and besides, bad-mouthing other people isn't such a good idea anyway. If someone in your department has some say in your job promotion status, what would calling out bad behavior do to you?

People also seek out ways to blame the victim. Look up the "just world theory." If someone is victimized, other people tend to look for proof that the victim was complicit and therefore deserved it.

I've also noticed that academics tend to idolize other academics, on top of having a higher opinion of themselves, being academics. If a researcher is very good at research, he/she can get away with more unethical behavior. This is not limited to academia. Bobby Fischer was an anti-Semite, but the entire chess community didn't punish him because of it, because he was so valuable to chess. He also cheered for 9/11 and said that America deserved it. But people gloss over these things and emphasize his contributions to chess. An ordinary chess player would never get such treatment. Just as there are many toxic chess grandmasters, there are many toxic academics, and everyone else tends to turn a blind eye and focus on their own self-interest.

A good book, for more information, is Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, by Jeremy Pfeffer.

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    Most academics are not tenured. "Thus the throwing of chalk and keys and shoes or what have you at students by prestigious professors at prestigious places is tolerated," That is not true. Personally, the only worker I have seen throw things was a decidedly non-prestigious high school teacher. May 29, 2021 at 5:20
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    Tenured academics can be punished by assigning them unpleasant duties within the terms of their contracts. They can loose their jobs if they do not perform their assigned duties. May 29, 2021 at 5:22
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    +1 for "People are motivated to overlook negative behavior as a one-time event." and " If a researcher is very good at research, he/she can get away with more unethical behavior."
    – Andrew
    May 29, 2021 at 15:06
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    "Tenured professors can get away with a lot of negative behavior because they face no consequences" Source? May 29, 2021 at 16:34
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    @Mehta: at the very least, having trouble renewing a grant. In cases where the prof has a lab, poor production from the lab, which again will make it harder to get funding. And there are places where profs are fired for not getting funding; and in places where they are not fired, they are likely to have less income because of the poor research production. In other places, a prof with poor research output might be switched to a teaching stream, where the teaching loads are much higher and the salary raises lower. May 29, 2021 at 18:40
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To answer the question OP: Because they can, simple as that. This is basically a labor supply and demand issue and professors at this point enjoy having an over-supply of labor. It's the same reason workers in low demand industries get treated like shit.

And academics go to great lengths to try to maintain their privileged position by gate keeping based upon academic standing when it comes to research.

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    @AzorAhai-him-: I want to know where those professors are, and how many they are. Because for all the professors I know (a few hundreds, say?) taking a Ph.D. student is quite the committment, both timewise and moneywise. And I know lots of cases of professors sticking with not too good Ph.D. students. I have never seen such "high supply", and in any case it's not like you can just eject a Ph.D. student you don't like and replace him. May 29, 2021 at 17:22
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    @MartinArgerami I don't know - maybe Fourier can answer that. I don't know about you, but my department accepts around 20% of applicants, about 10% attend. That's high supply. People regularly apply to work with people who are well-known to be jerks (and we tell them that at visiting students' weekend, and they still come). If you need minions, there's a new batch every year. And depends on the department - sometimes you can "eject" someone. May 29, 2021 at 17:26
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    @AzorAhai-him-: I don't really follow. You are saying that there are professors who hire "minions", don't care about their productivity, mistreat them, wait till they quit, and then repeat the process? What's the logic on that? How would the prof benefit for doing that? May 29, 2021 at 18:48
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    Professor success is not tied to his workers well being, in fact he normally selects against it to get maximum return. The posts on this place basically revolve around justifying why ridiculous demands are legitimate "because it's what academics have to do to be successful". This mentality purely comes from a saturation of students desperate to eat as much shit as needed in order to get ahead in their field. Most don't have any other options. May 29, 2021 at 20:36
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    @MartinArgerami My attempt to rephrase FourierFlux's point would be: professors can and do make demands of their PhD students that a boss in industry would not make without losing a substantial fraction of their employees. The reason this works is that there are enough willing PhD students who will put up with these demands, so that any individual PhD student cannot successfully push back if they have an abusive advisor.
    – Andrew
    May 30, 2021 at 12:08
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I wouldn't say that bad behavior is "excused or dismissed" -- we can be quite harsh in castigating professors for bad behavior. Rather, I would submit that:

  1. Professors deserve a little more "benefit of the doubt" than a typical boss, and
  2. When professors do behave badly, students have fewer options than typical employees.

With respect to the former, the reality is that most students are just starting their academic careers. Many have never had a supervisor before, and few are familiar with academic norms. Further, being a student is inherently stressful -- the long hours and poor wages, the precariousness of the position, the uncertain future, etc. -- which can warp students' perspectives. In contrast, professors have undergone a very rigorous selection process (based primarily on their own success in research) before being allowed to supervise students, and some have supervised many students successfully over a long career. So when we have only one side of the story, it is perhaps natural to consider alternative explanations rather than only accepting the student's side of the story.

With respect to the latter, there is little that students can do to "punish" a tenured professor, except in the most extreme cases. Unlike industry, where leaving a job after just a few years is common and acceptable, leaving a PhD position without a PhD to enroll in another PhD program only happens when something goes wrong. Even if the student is blameless, it can be hard to find another prestigious PhD position, and one's graduation date is likely to be set back by a year or more. Similarly, leaving any academic job without a letter of recommendation from the advisor is usually seen as a red flag, regardless of the reason. Given how competitive the academic job market is, many early-career academics (quite rationally) try to "make it work" in situations where most employees would have left.

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    "Professors deserve a little more "benefit of the doubt" than a typical boss" This is wrong. May 29, 2021 at 4:01
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    "professors have undergone a very rigorous selection process" Do you have any evidence this is different from managers in large corporations? I don't believe you. May 29, 2021 at 4:01
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    "students are just starting their academic careers. " That's not relevant to faculty behavior. May 29, 2021 at 4:02
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    "some have supervised many students successfully over a long career." Yes, and some have never supervised a student before. Past supervision is not evidence of competent supervision. May 29, 2021 at 4:02
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Typically professors do undergo a more rigorous selection process than corporate managers. Having said that little of that rigor actually matters. It is like we are using the Navy Seal's 18 month BUDS training to weed out prospective dog groomers. There is no good reason to believe that the selected applicants are better groomers than the weeded out applicants. There is good reason to believe that the best dog groomers never applied.
    – emory
    May 29, 2021 at 12:48
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I do not believe there is any difference between academia, industry, and anywhere else in society. There are a few bad people in every group. Claims that academia is some how a special industry are common, but I do not remember seeing any of them backed by evidence.

The three examples you give are all bad behavior. I have downvoted and criticized answers like those several times. More broadly speaking, assuming that the person asking the question is wrong without having any evidence to support that assumption is bad behavior.

You also have a meta-question: Are the Academia and Workplace stack exchanges different? I think they are different. This site has many professors on it, or people who think they will become professors. The Workplace stack exchange, which I rarely read, is probably full of workers with few managers. If you asked a bunch of managers, or a bunch of future managers, what they thought about manager misconduct, they'd probably have a bias to excuse it.

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    "I do not believe there is any difference between academia, industry, and anywhere else in society." -- Really?
    – Andrew
    May 29, 2021 at 13:15
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    Employment Law certainly sees a difference. Certain arenas of work (e.g. domestic servants, theatre nurses) allow discrimination and certain positions enjoy security of tenure (civil servants, judges, some academics). Anecdotally, if not statistically, abuse of employees is much more common and more extreme in both these categories of employment.
    – Trunk
    May 31, 2021 at 12:14
  • @Trunk In some countries there is no special employment law for academics. May 31, 2021 at 23:53
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Many of the answers essentially are answering this version of the question: Assuming you are a PhD student who wants an academic job, why is it in your best interest to "make it work" with an advisor you don't get along with? In that sense, I agree with many of the answers that boil down to... in normal circumstances, as a PhD student, you don't have many moves you can make to go around your advisor without hurting your academic career.

However I think there are other levels on which to think about this question.

One interesting level is: Why is it culturally acceptable in academia that some advisors are abusive to their students and have a lot of power in the field? I think there are many contributing factors... an incomplete list would include (a) there are people in any field (not just in academia) that treat their peers well and their subordinates poorly, and it's usually difficult for peers to "see inside" the culture of a lab, (b) research funding and promotions are based on grants won and publication records which incentivize long working hours and doesn't incentivize developing a "healthy work culture" in the same way that engineering firms are incentivized to do so (although you should also be skeptical of claims to have a "healthy work culture" in engineering firms, but that's a different story), (c) professors typically don't get management training and are not supported by their departments or funding agencies to pursue such training, (d) academic research is hyper-specialized and by the time you become a high-level expert in your area with a tenure-track faculty job, you are one of a handful of people who are qualified to do that job. Basically, academia is very hierarchical, and professors at the top of the hierarchy don't have a lot of oversight, while as a PhD student at the bottom of the hierarchy you don't have much ability to directly challenge the people above you in an unhealthy situation. Of course, ideally your advisor will encourage you to challenge them and will engage with your ideas -- mine did -- but there is no requirement that your advisor will be good.

Another level is: should a PhD student put up with a work environment they find toxic? This is really impossible to answer without getting into the details of a specific situation. On the one hand, it is certainly true that that directly challenging your advisor will make your life much more difficult as a PhD student if you want to stay in your program and in academia. Additionally, life is not perfect and there are bad bosses everywhere (in and out of academia). There is often a period of transition in going from being an undergrad to working as a professional that involves growing pains where you don't like your boss and working full time, and you just need to get through this part of growing up. On the other hand, as a talented and hardworking student, you do have other opportunities for a career that are not in academia, where your career is not as reliant on one person or one organization. It's worth knowing what these options are, and you won't hear about them (or you won't hear accurate things about them) if you only talk to people who are in academia. Sifting through what is normal growing pains, what is a truly abusive situation, and what your priorities are, is a challenging process specific to the individual. Probably academic stack exchange can only help with some parts of this -- for example, you are choosing a forum where the answer-ers are academics.

Context: I recently transitioned from a physics postdoc to industry.

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I am also very skeptical about the assertion that bad behavior is more tolerated in academia than in industry. Academia and industry each contain multitudes, but here are some relevant, broad differences between academia and industry.

  • There are different types of positions in academia: Master's student, PhD student, postdoc, junior professor, senior professor, administrative, etc. The hierarchy structure varies a lot by culture, field, university, department and situation. Much (a vast majority?) of the time, I believe there is more freedom in academia from superviors than in industry, and typically very little direct supervision beyond the grad student and postdoc level. All of my time in academia, I never felt like I had a "boss" or "manager", and when I was a student, I always felt like my supervisor was giving me advice and teaching me, rather than giving me orders. Though my impression might be very different if I were working in a lab science. Consequently, certain types of bad behavior may affect one less if you only see your supervisor once a week or once a month or so than if you have to see and interact with them daily.

  • The nature of the positions where you may have significant direct supervision (grad students and some postdocs) is typically quite different than in industry. PhD/postdoc roles inherently training positions, for you to learn and get qualifications for future careers, and you can think of them as vested positions, where you don't get "full benefits" until you complete a degree or project/paper. Note also that getting good letters of recommendations from advisors/senior academics is very important for finding future positions in academia.

  • Academic positions are less fungible. As mentioned in a number of other answers, there are relatively few academic positions, and in general it seems more difficult to change positions in academia than in industry.

Note: I wrote more on the first point and put it first, not because I am saying it is the most important thing, but simply because it was the least addressed point in other answers.

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    I object to the characterisation of postdocs as training positions. PhD students are training positions, but postdocs are project research positions performed by trained and experienced scientists and do not grant a degree (they grant experience — any job does). Many researchers spend decades chaining such project research positions (=postdocs). I am sensitive about this mischaraterisation because this has been used to deny postdocs employment rights (for example, last time I looked, NASA postdocs had zero holidays, zero sick days, zero pensions, no employer health insurance, and bad pay).
    – gerrit
    May 31, 2021 at 8:51
  • @gerrit How about: many postdocs are effectively training positions? As I said, academia is broad, and I realize there are different kinds of postdocs. In my department, postdocs have mentors and postdoc experience is essentially a required qualification for an assistant professor position, and this is what I had in mind. Some countries have formal habilitation systems, which in some sense are "postdoc degrees." Certainly I don't support denying employment rights to postdocs or grad students.
    – Kimball
    Jun 1, 2021 at 0:24
  • I didn't mean to suggest you support denying employment rights to postdocs, I'm sorry if my post implied that. I think any job can include training, and that junior faculty or pure teaching positions need mentoring too, but that "job comes with training" does not make it a training position. I agree that postdoc experience is a essentially required for faculty positions, but isn't one of the reasons for that (apart from research experience as such), that postdoc experience can show independence and self-motivation, precisely because they are not pure training positions?
    – gerrit
    Jun 1, 2021 at 9:43
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Most of the answers here are focusing on how academia and other professional contexts are different - but OP's question also asks, at least in part, why the Academia Stack Exchange is different from the Workplace Stack Exchange. And - although I am inviting downvotes by saying this - I think it is in part due to the quality and nature of the questions posted on the two exchanges.

Many questions posted on Academia turn on very specific questions about ethics and protocol, and - unfortunately - it often seems like many question posters deliberately withhold critical details about their situations that are necessary to answer the questions adequately. Sometimes it seems clear that the question posters are doing this to maintain their anonymity in the small communities of their disciplines, but many other times it seems pretty clear that they're doing it to define the question narrative in a way that makes them appear to be in the right. In other words, they are seeking in their answers not guidance but justification. The absence of needed detail and the palpable way that many questions are shaded leads people to probe for clarification. Are you sure it happened that way? Can you tell us more about the email you received? And so forth.

Workplace questions seem to be more simple and clear-cut. When they are complex, the question posters more often err on the side of providing too much detail than too little. There is still a recurring problem of narrative framing being more common than being forthright, but it's much less pronounced.

4

The problem is that the power imbalance is much higher in academia compared to most jobs in industry. A PhD student is dependent on their advisor, and can't easily switch to somewhere else unlike an employee of some company. Academia also tends to be more specialized, which results in much smaller communities. This can mean that if you antagonize one well-known person in the field, you can seriously hurt your chances everywhere else.

This leads to people giving realistic advice, and not idealistic one for an ideal world. And realistic advice in these situations looks pretty close to simply accepting bad situations. In the workplace the most common advice for seriously bad situations is to change jobs, simply because as a single employee you generally can't fix a fundamentally broken workplace. In academia there are simply many more situations in which switching jobs has a very serious cost, which creates the power imbalance that allows bad behaviour without consequencese.

3

I can only speak about my personal experience with academia. I think it allows abuse because there is so little normalization and regulation within it. PIs don't get any instruction on how to mentor and universities have little to no incentive to teach them how, because everyone seems to be getting along well enough without funding such instruction. Programs are big enough, people are plenty enough that drop outs are well-tolerated.

Honestly, I think publicly reviewing labs, like Yelp/Glassdoor for industry positions, would solve a lot of this. People don't want to look bad, and this matters more to them than promoting good training. To get the desired outcome (good training) we need to penalize hostile or otherwise poor work environments. If the sun don't shine there, we need to make it shine there.

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    The problem with public reviews of academic groups/professors is that you have about ten people per group who stay for about four years. Even if everybody reviewed, it would take very long to have any reasonable statistics that is free of individual variations that have nothing to do with the professor/group, in particular given that academic positions are a highly individual experience and most people (in particular PhDs) lack a reasonable comparison. Moreover, it would be very difficult to keep reviews anonymous and the statistics would be very easy to manipulate.
    – Wrzlprmft
    May 29, 2021 at 18:57
  • 1
    This is always the feedback. "Lack a reasonable comparison" is fine because you don't need that for toxic behavior. Low n is tough: one solution might be to withhold reporting until n>5 reviews. Or, the qs don't have to be negative: a lot of UX is just joining a lab with a style that matches your work style prefs. Having prefs reported and made available would be HUGE for people not erroneously joining bad fits (and then leaving science). Eg, is it a 9-5 lab or a 12h lab or a progress lab? Can you present unpub data at confs? Survey folks and publish the lab prefs!
    – yelx
    May 30, 2021 at 1:14
  • 1
    Naive to think that academics in receipt of big research grants will give a hang about the Rate-My-Department type sites. As long as the money is flowing in - or existing contracts can sustain things - the profs will laugh it all off.
    – Trunk
    May 30, 2021 at 12:39
  • 2
    No. Researchers can access very little info about labs without contacting someone in the lab directly. To access info like Glassdoor provides for industry would be game changing. Additionally, grant mechanisms could evaluate mentorship or some other metric that reflects trainee success. If we don't put money on it (like you said) we don't really value it and it won't happen. But NIH grants, for ex, include a rating of the investigator, which is silly because they themselves won't be doing the proposed experiments. If this was changed to a mentoring score it would fit the reality better too.
    – yelx
    May 30, 2021 at 12:55
1

Teachers are often better people

I am not in academia, nor have I ever been, so I can say it: people who have devoted themselves to either (A) teaching, or (B) discovering the secrets of the world, tend to possess specific virtues that are relevant in the kinds of scenario you describe. Namely:

  1. a willingness to look for fault in themselves
  2. a recognition that most behaviors are as complex as the systems in which they take place

As other posters have noted, there are bad apples in every bunch. None of the above is meant to suggest otherwise: you will find assholes and prigs and boors off-campus and on. But your question is about why the people around the bad apples act differently. Well, the people around a misbehaving academic are themselves academics.

Imagine a bad actor in the workplace:

Where I might see an incompetent jerk who it'd be better to remove from the team, a teacher may see a person who is merely suffering from ignorance or struggling to learn and not handling their frustration well, and a scientist may see someone so passionate about their work that they've become oblivious to the social context.

I will fire the jerk and forget about him. The teacher will at least look to see whether an ideal outcome can be had by some indirect but ingenious means. The scientist may tolerate a kindred spirit that is still learning how to balance intense focus with the mundane evils of human organization. And both the teacher and scientist probably do this over the deafening klaxon of their own internal Dunning-Kruger alarms, while I pat myself on the back for writing off the jerk as early as possible, do not grow, and (perversely) collect $200, thus reinforcing my devil-take-the-hindmost approach to the workplace.

As other posters have described, the path chosen by an academic is neither easy nor rewarding by common standards. Those unfortunate facts act as a filter, as sure as a math test or the blood-brain barrier. As a result, we can expect to find certain character qualities concentrated on the one or other side of that barrier. It's not black-and-white, but there is a gradient and its orientation is not accidental.

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    I don't agree that teachers (meaning, in this context, professors) are "better people," but I definitely agree with the overall spirit of the answer and think it's a nice insight. As someone who has been jaded by academia, I would rephrase this sentence: "Where I might see an incompetent jerk who it'd be better to remove from the team, an academic may see a good researcher who can be a valuable ally and co-author and be willing to overlook the social context." (I'm not saying you should change your answer, just giving a different spin on it)
    – Andrew
    May 29, 2021 at 19:18
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    Professor tend not to be teachers
    – Neil Meyer
    May 30, 2021 at 14:47
  • 2
    @NeilMeyer ... what?
    – Andrew
    May 31, 2021 at 3:49
  • @Andrew In American English, a "teacher" is someone who teaches in a primary or secondary school. While many professors teach, they are not known as "teachers" and someone referring to them as such tends to mean they don't have much experience with academia (which on this site, is kind of the main point). Non-professors who teach in American universities are "lecturers." May 31, 2021 at 21:55
  • @AzorAhai-him- It seems pretty clear to me from context that Tom is using the word "teacher" to refer to "professors" in this answer. I wouldn't refer to a professor as a teacher, but I understand why Tom would have this idea. Also I would say professors are teachers, in the sense that they do teach (usually), even though I wouldn't say the word professor can be replaced with the word teacher. Maybe we are saying the same thing...
    – Andrew
    May 31, 2021 at 22:57
0

The present situation results from a number of factors:

  • Tenure - mere incompetence in itself not sufficient grounds for dismissal.
  • Quasi-tenure - reluctance on part of senior faculty/university management to establish a punishment precedent for all future similar or worse occurrences by other academics within that university results in untenured professors effectively having tenure
  • Absence of parents, employers, wider community, teaching profession, education department from academic disciplinary committees.
  • Excess loyalty of academics to colleagues and professors/deans who appoint them leads to desensitization to abuse of students
  • Need of academics to work closely with other in relation to teaching creates a trust that may extend to other areas where colleagues' conduct cannot be seen
  • Alcoholism - present in many higher professions and not surprisingly also in academia. Many professors show a tolerance (if not almost an expectation) of excessive drinking in postgraduates. In some cases this is to divert suspicion of alcoholism in themselves or in colleagues.
  • Vulnerability of particular students, e.g. low-income background, "unconnected" parents, foreign students fearing loss of visa, career dreams and parental disappointment.
  • Lack of cohesion among postgraduate students - results from academics operating a divide-and-conquer policy as well as inter-student rivalries plus useless student union officers.
  • Lack of backbone by postgraduate students in general compared to employees in general.
  • Selfishness of postgraduate students who are happy to see a deranged, vain or abusive professor focus his/her anxieties on a student other than themselves.
  • University budget pressures tempt management to accept the (relatively low) risk of aggrieved student litigation compared to the loss of reputation, research income and quality student intake.
  • Total absence of a clear setting-out of what the priorities ought to be in higher education.

I totally agree that university professors and students need be educated on human relationships and their primary importance in academia as much as in all other arenas of life. Every university ought to have an ethos embracing this, whatever about curriculum or research. But ethos alone is useless without a clear plan of work to achieve it in reality - and this plan of action must include dealing with those who subvert the ethos whether for ambition or to satisfy a personal vice, as well as those colleagues and management who renege on their duty to protest against known misconduct.

Ultimately I think having a real-world dimension within university disciplinary processes is vital. And I see addition of parents', employers', teaching profession's and government's representatives as central to this. But in the meantime we need laws on abuse in the workplace which specifically deal with university education/employment situations.

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  • 2
    I don't know where you live, but in this part of the world (Europe), "quasi tenure" doesn't exist. Either your fixed-term/otherwise precarious or you're tenured.
    – henning
    May 31, 2021 at 18:24
  • Who's parent are you taking about?
    – Maeher
    May 31, 2021 at 19:52
  • The parents of the students, of course. They are big stakeholders in the education of their children both directly and by way of the portion of their income taxes that is distributed to publicly funded institutions.
    – Trunk
    May 31, 2021 at 23:24
  • 2
    @Trunk not about terminology. I'm just not sure your it's true that untenured professors effectively [have] tenure over here. We don't (almost don't) have an equivalent to "tenure track" positions. Everyone who doesn't have tenure is on fixed-term contracts and easy to intimidate.
    – henning
    Jun 1, 2021 at 5:30
  • 1
    That's ridiculous. Students are adults. Their parents have no place anywhere near their university any more than the professor's parents do.
    – Maeher
    Jun 1, 2021 at 5:34
-4

The problem I see is that many people expect the relationship between teacher and student to be based of equality when really it is not. You maybe equalls in terms of the law, but you are not equal in status in life and at the university. All teaching aims to adress an inequality in education and knowledge between people.

You study, you clean the lab equipment. You do all the work that the master does not want to do and for his effort the apprentice gets training. I don't know who exactly is perpetuating this myth of equality, but we are all unequal of other people in certain ways. This is life.

Your teacher may undertake to help you achieve certain academic goals or achievements, but what he/she may not be willing to do is use any of his/her limited amount of patience on people of a lower standing in life, who go out of there way to make there lives harder than what it needs to be.

When the issue of your inequality is addressed and you get to a similar level in your field, then you will adress each others as contemporaries and equals, but until the apprentice becomes a master in his own right, then he really cannot expect anything in particular from the people who train him.

This is the biggest problem with people of today. They expect other people who are under no obligation to do so to conform to there ways.

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    OP never suggested that professors and PhD candidates were professional equals. OP simply wants basic human decency in the working relationship.
    – Trunk
    May 31, 2021 at 0:26
  • As a non-programmer who hangs out on The Workplace, I'll say two things: 1) The criticisms of academia in terms of power dynamics and 'lock-in' are 100% correct. 2) IMHO, The Workplace does tend to give out 'just leave' advice more than I'd like. It's like teaching a class on negotiation: when you have an extremely strong position, the only advice is to recognize that and use that. The real tricky part is how to leverage a weaker position, and The Workplace does not do that very well. Jul 11, 2021 at 23:29

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