Friday, October 11, 2013

Academic Monkey Gives Unsolicited Advice

I keep playing with the idea of soliciting letters for advice rather than mining other blogs and advice columns. I wonder if anyone would be interested in submitting problems plaguing their own department? Or would that trample the feet of Thirsties? Tell us in the comments!
~ Academic Monkey

Problem Posed:

I am in my second year of a three-year post-doc in the Northeast. It's great fortune for me to get a long post-doc, and I feel confident that this is going to lead to new opportunities in the future. I have been able to publish portions of my research and I just sewed up a book deal for my dissertation. Things are going well, but I have to make sure that I continue working out or things could quickly fall apart.

My problem is my supervisor. She is the Chair of the department and she is married to a Dean. She's fairly powerful at this university. And for whatever reason, she thinks I am a complete waste of space. She makes back-handed comments about how I must have gotten this job (she inherited my direction from the previous chair, who hired me and then retired for health reasons). She has filed formal complaints against my "lack of boundaries" and my "unprofessionalism" but these cases have gone to HR where they were dismissed for making no sense. Her accusations and hostility never come back to a specific source that cannot be explained. One time I missed a meeting because a student fainted outside my office and I sought medical attention for him. Another time, I gave a lecture on my research but it did not conform to the lecture's title as well as she had hoped. These minor infractions have led to violent confrontations in her office where she has threatened to take away my position and file charges against me.

Frankly, she seems unstable. But how does one go about getting a person who is unstable removed from a position of power?

Unsolicited Advice:

One doesn't. One imagines, one daydreams, but one is never successful. Everyone reading this sentence has someone they wish they could remove from power, but every one of us will fail.

People in power like this -- not just Chair in their own right, but married to a Dean -- are too hyper-connected to suddenly receive a serving of just desserts. This is how the world works; sometimes you get in the fast lane, and sometimes terrible people get in the fast lane. There's no accounting for talent.

But this is what you do: you begin to keep a log. You have already had (more than one?) meeting with HR about this, where HR exonerated you. HR will be keeping notes meticulously. HR fears above all else the lawsuit. They don't care if you are friends. They just want to avoid the lawsuit. They avoided said lawsuit by siding with you, but they took notes the whole time.

So you should too. Keep a weekly log of your interactions with her (or daily if needed). Anything odd? Jot it down -- just the day, time, and description. This can and will be used as evidence if this is needed.

To make things even more trustworthy at court, create a google thread and update your log by emailing a reply to the initial thread. Do not do this on your school computer nor using your school email account. Use your private account. But the time stamp with each email will help establish a pattern over time.

If you are lucky, you will never need to use this journal of events for your defense. If you are unlucky, this log will help you support your point and keep your job intact. And sometimes power mad people do power mad things.

Finally, while keeping this log, do your best to steer clear of your Chair. Keep your interactions short. Have a few handy excuses always around -- "I'm sorry, but I was just leaving for an appointment." "If you don't mind, I have to catch Dr Silverback down the hall before her class." "I'm sorry I can't talk right now, I have a deadline due tonight!"

Always been cheerful. Be extra diligent in your promises and words around her. Do not say you will do something unless you can be 100% sure that you can do it. Cultivate relationships with people *not* in power so you have allies and potential recommendations as you move on.

And live out your spectacular post-doc with the dream of moving on to a more stable crew.

(But let's be honest: ever department has one of these, and every university has one of these in a position of power. We should all be keeping logs. I imagine a spectacular thirty where we all share our horror stories of people in power doing things of pure insanity)


  1. Keeping a log and a Google thread and minimizing interactions with the Chair are all good advice. I'd also recommend planning your escape carefully, and for as soon as possible. A postdoc simply cannot remove a tenured faculty member in power, no matter how insane. This is yet another reason why academia today is getting far too corrupt.

    1. P.S. I know that the U.S. Constitution makes provision for what happens if the President becomes unfit to govern. The trouble is that your Chair isn't the U.S. president, and more to the point, academia isn't a democracy.

  2. Imagine the story if Moby Dick were a Harpoon's Mate, Third Class serving on the Pequod, and Ahab destroyed the ship to bring him down.

    Good advice above, but also, get the tea-party out of there. It may be worth while finding a place to go next before Ahab figures out you plan to jump ship and decides to sabotage you. HR will help you (not because they like you, but because: Lawsuit) but their help probably can't unsabotage hirings that didn't happen at other places.

    1. I was thinking along the same lines as Alan. I'm not sure exactly how things work in your field, but my guess is that it's probably acceptable to leave a postdoc early, and that you can still rely mostly on grad-school mentors/advisors for any necessary help (e.g. references) in conducting a search. That could get you out before she has a chance to realize you're trying to get out, and sabotage you.* Besides, unless the job market for your discipline is in much, much better shape than most, it may well take you two years of searching (or more) to get a job.

      *of course, if she wants you out of her department, one of the smartest things she could do is give you an excellent recommendation, and/or other help in finding another job. But this doesn't sound like someone with the level of emotional maturity/control to think that strategically.

  3. Lots of good advice here. And I like Academic Monkey's idea about soliciting advice, because sometimes putting together a Thirsty requires energy a person may not have while immersed in events. It also adds another layer of anonymity.

    How would CM handle the logistics? Would folks send an email to CM with "for AM's advice" on the subject line, and the mods would forward it?

    1. I'm going to create an email account especially for this and include it at the top of next week's column. If no one solicits, I have a cache of problems ready to go; if someone poses an interesting problem, then we can argue over the best course of action.

      I do think these stories would be more meaningful if the person was actually soliciting the groups advice.

    2. Sounds like the least complicated approach (which is likely also to be the most workable one).

  4. The Beaker knows of some good stuff you could sprinkle on the Chair's lunch to help her expire a little sooner than expected. Then get Greta to write the haiku metaphor version of Moby Dick about the Chair's demise and sell it on Amazon. Win-win-win.

    If that doesn't work, call Strel.

  5. As AM said, you can't remove an adminiflake. Demonstrated incompetence won't do it, violating the faculty manual's rules won't do it. A credible threat of legal action might, but there the problem is the U can afford bigger and badder lawyers than a mere prof. I know, I tried and unless they have a slam-dunk (rare), or a "minority" case to play with, they're not interested.

    Adminiflakes have three priorities, in this order: covering their own ass, covering the ass of the adminiflake above them, covering the ass of the adminiflake below them. The concerns of rank-and-file faculty or the ostensible "mission" are not on their radar. HR? Let me laugh. They work for the U, not for you. As said above, their priority is to avert potentially successful legal action.)

    At any rate, in addition to what's been said: never, ever, interact with an adminiflake (such as the chair in this story) "informally". No hallway chit-chat, ever. All exchanges by email, carefully stored. Called for an interview? Record it. Buy a recording pen on the internet, they're cheap and very effective. Find out what the laws in your state say about recording without consent. If it's not kosher, do it anyway and make a show of taking copious notes.

    Finally, what? In the second year of a three year postdoc? You should be applying for jobs, not getting involved in this nonsense. Stay away from the chair at all costs. Secure letters from the outside colleagues who wrote you LORs already, plus a teaching letter from a friend at this place (if you have one). You're done with this place (regardless of how "shiny" they are), drop the third year if you get a decent offer.

    1. Also: consider taking a second postdoc, if you don't get a TT offer at a geographically desirable location. Do not accept a TT offer at an undesirable location. Much better to get a non-academic job instead (and change careers permanently.)

    2. This is advice that you don't hear very often, but really really should. There is something unbearable about being a country person working in a big city, or a city gal being forced to socialize at the local Olive Garden.

      Geography matters a whole lot more than one might think, let alone the amount that one considers when first on the job market.