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I'm currently finishing up a master's thesis in computer science/applied mathematics and have for the last few years been sure of my goals: to pursue a PhD.

The decision to do a PhD or not should largely be a function of your research potential. There's a lot of questions of the "am I good enough for a PhD" sort, but my concerns are of the opposite flavor. I'm fairly convinced that I would make an able researcher, based on discussions with several members of faculty and my output record thus far.

Lately, I've gotten a taste of academia's backside. There's the general record padding done by a fraction of faculty: publishing/coauthoring stuff they KNOW have no novel content, blatant reciprocal out-of-context citations and stuff like that. This strategizing almost seems to spill over into the problem selection process as well - a good problem is one that has potential for publication quantity first and foremost.

Not all professors do it, so I guess I could live with it. What's worse is the attitude from what is supposed to be peers. PhD students who I've proposed ideas to pitching them as their own to their supervisors. Others acting threatened and stand-offish, leading to awkward social situations. There's much less free exchange of ideas and much more politics than I thought.

It seems like such a cynical culture at times. Most of the professors are great, but I don't know if I'd want to enter academia if this is a typical situation between peers. So my question is: is this really typical? Am I being unreasonable in expecting less politics between peers? Is it possible to work in this sort of atmosphere without becoming part of it?

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    Short answer: it really depends on where you are, and who is around. From my observation, in mathematics, as a rule of thumb, the abuse of science that you describe becomes less common (but does not disappear) the higher up in the "prestige hierarchy" one goes. Humans remains human though, and politics takes different forms :-) Academic jobs generally have more autonomy than most "usual" jobs, which makes it easier to cope with politics which is present in both kinds of jobs. – Boris Bukh May 21 '16 at 1:03
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    You will need a job unless you hit a lottery jackpot tomorrow. If not in Academia, then it will be industry or government. Would you believe there is no politics in those places? – scaaahu May 21 '16 at 3:26
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    I only know of such culture in materials science where every small measurements are published. I also know of a famous editor who wants me to cite a significant portion of his published works before accepting my paper. I am sure to him it's the norm. – Prof. Santa Claus May 21 '16 at 4:04
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    Novel content is seriously harmful to science to over-emphasize. Solid research that supports others' more novel claims is good research. – The Nate May 21 '16 at 9:02
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    "Publish or perish" and "impostor syndrome" pressures can lead many young researchers down such a path. Habit keeps the older ones there. – zibadawa timmy May 21 '16 at 15:33
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When it comes to a workplace, politics is inevitable. There are always bias in opinions, bureaucratic criteria that are bendable to some, possible hierarchical influence. These are all common in almost any workplace (at least AFAIK). Academia is no different in this case. There are people who prefer quantity over quality and some others the other way around.

At times, the level at which you could be a part of this depends. You may be able to avoid in being a part of this to some extent, but you may have to witness this nonetheless.

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There is this well known quote saying something like:

Academic politics are so vicious and bitter because the stakes are so low.

Don't know who said it, I heard it in an episode of The Mentalist.

I tend to disagree, while the stakes might be low from Humanity's standpoint, at the individual level the stakes are very high: the perspective of cosy government jobs, well-paid academic positions (in many countries, professors enjoy salaries and job security that people in other branches would only dream of), etc. will bring the worst out of the best people.

The answer to your question is yes, it's common. It's increasingly common as the number of people working in academia exploded in the previous decades. But it's basically a two-gears system: there's academia of the serious, hard working and brilliant people who get the funding they deserve because of the excellent output they generate, and there's the academia of the "me too" crowd where much of what you described happens: people who try very hard to have an output that looks like the one of brilliant academics.

Here's a quote from 1963 cited in recent comment published in Nature:

Scientific eminence [is] concentrated in a very small percentage of researchers, and that the number of leading scientists [grows] much more slowly than the number of merely good ones, and that [yields to] “an even greater preponderance of manpower able to write scientific papers, but not able to write distinguished ones”

In any system where funding is attributed on subjective criteria, or bad objective ones, politics will be preponderant. In that I disagree with several other comments that say academia is no different than a commercial business. Of course it is.

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    "because the stakes are so low" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sayre's_law – Pete L. Clark May 21 '16 at 19:38
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    I am very curious as to where a full professor makes between $150K and $250K a year. This article en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professors_in_the_United_States has some information on salary information. Among all academic fields the highest median salary for full professors is listed as $136,634. The same article lists the common range as "high 70's to low 100's; mid 100's at elite universities". With regard to "two gears": where do the brilliant, serious hard-working people who leave academia because they can't get jobs fit in to your metaphor? – Pete L. Clark May 21 '16 at 19:48
  • I did a bit more research (starting in July I will be a full professor, so I am very interested in full professor salaries; I'm not upset or anything like that). Of the 114 colleges and universities in Massachusetts (your profile says you live in Boston), the median 2012-2013 faculty salary lies above $150K at eight of them. The top four: 4. Boston College $159K, 3. Babson $173K, 2. MIT $179K, 1. Harvard $203K. – Pete L. Clark May 21 '16 at 20:08
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    +1 for a number of reasons, but most importantly for pointing out that it's not the same in academia and industry: academia is far worse. After my Ph.D., I worked at a number of high-powered finance outfits on or near Wall Street which, by common, easy prejudice is supposed to be all cutthroat. However, it was, by and large, a collegial group effort, while in my Ph. D. I had my ideas pitched as someone else's, and knew of breathtaking politics. I only disagree that successful researchers are less likely to be egotistical: all of the above are tenured at top 5 places now (one a Nobel prospect). – gnometorule May 22 '16 at 3:29
  • @PeteL.Clark the people you mention do not fit in any of the two groups because they're not in academia anymore. I think this is a different issue. The salaries I mention are in Switzerland, where I currently reside. – Cape Code May 22 '16 at 8:35
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So my question is: is this really typical?

Whether or not this is typical depends on the field and depends on the environment. The local environment is probably the most important - the department and the university.

Am I being unreasonable in expecting less politics between peers?

I would argue that yes, you are being unreasonable.

Is it possible to work in this sort of atmosphere without becoming part of it?

Yes, it is possible.

Ultimately, one can argue that the fundamental mechanisms of academia are not unique from any other workplace. Thus, it is a business - the inputs and outputs are just different. Also, people are involved, so politics will naturally occur. Here, though, politics kind of blends with the mechanisms of collegiality - is it due to politics that you were written into the grant, or is it because you can contribute to the project? Or is it both?

Despite these similarities, there is one striking difference between academia and other fields - a meritocracy does exist and eventually the literature will weed out the crap. This just doesn't occur on the timescale of careers usually.

The key is to do the science that aligns with your passion. This will help you keep your head above it all.

And its also important to keep in mind that you don't need to be in a top-tier position (where cut-throat politics usually occur) to do good science. Good science can happen anywhere. Fast and expensive science usually only happens at top tier places, but that doesn't mean its good.

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I wanted to pursue a career in academia because I thought it was cleaner than the corporate world. Somebody told me that academia is not free from politics either. I only learned much later how true this is.

Nothing is free from politics. It is exactly because of this that academia need people like you who are willing to stand up for what is right. Even Academia.SE is not free from politics. But at least you'll know that there are people here who care about what is right.

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What's worse is the attitude from what is supposed to be peers. PhD students who I've proposed ideas to pitching them as their own to their supervisors. Others acting threatened and stand-offish, leading to awkward social situations. There's much less free exchange of ideas and much more politics than I thought.

It sounds like you just got into a bad situation. For instance, maybe your advisor assigned you to a project that actually "belongs" to one of his PhD students, and the student wants to maintain ownership of his project. Unless your work is clearly separated from the PhD student's work (i.e. you are assigned your own independent subproblem), it's possible that the PhD student could be in danger of losing first authorship, or losing control of his project. Sometimes advisors make these decisions without getting permission from the students, and the PhD student might not actually want an extra person helping with the project, especially if your role on the project is not clearly defined.

Before you start a new project, it's useful to get a sense of where you stand with everyone on the team, and where people stand with each other in general. Not saying this is your fault, but you may have inadvertently crossed professional boundaries, just by being on the team. You probably want to avoid being on those sorts of teams if possible.

  • This seems like really weird advice... Why wouldn't you want help on the project? And how would a master's student go about getting a sense on how "he stands" with the rest of the group before the project has started? Isn't it common practice for master's students to work on similar problems to PhD students? This seems like absolutely awful advice to be honest. – asdf guy May 22 '16 at 19:35
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    @asdfguy Well, people want their project to be theirs, and they react badly when a newcomer tries to take over for them, and essentially steals their project (this is known as "scooping" someone). They have worked hard on their project and they don't want some master's student to render their efforts useless. – user54443 May 23 '16 at 6:32
  • @asdfguy Getting a sense of where you stand can be difficult, but you may be able to do it by talking to the grad students involved with the project before agreeing to work on the project. You can gauge things like how excited they are at the prospect of working with you. – user54443 May 23 '16 at 6:33
  • I don't think any of the PhD students are working on anything remotely connected to what I'm working on so that's hopefully not what's going on in my case, but I still find it troubling that people could see it as the master's students responsibility to make sure he isn't crossing any professional boundaries. If a PhD student feels slighted and passive-aggressively takes it out on the master's student instead of taking it up with him/her directly, how could anyone ever think that the master's student is the one behaving badly? – asdf guy May 23 '16 at 9:54
  • You probably want to avoid being on those sorts of teams if possible. — I'm not sure how feasible it would be for most master's students to avoid teams the way you describe. I think your post makes a good point, though, that a master's student could be stepping on toes without even realizing it. – Mad Jack May 23 '16 at 15:08
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In academe you have more freedom than perhaps anywhere else to choose your intellectual partners. Not all professors engage in ugly behavior, and good work is a great strategy, and so many good intellectual partners are available as you move up. Some of your peers will certainly succeed through cheating and bullying, and they will be your neighbors. Some disciplines are better at fighting this than others, and even within disciplines different tribes form around this dynamic: consider the subfields around you. Bottom line: if you can live next to ugly behavior, even push back against it, without it hurting your own quest for understanding, you can likely be happy in an academic setting. This is, in my own experience, more difficult in industry and government career paths, where your partners are more often picked for you.

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