Scary Collabs

Seems like there’s never any time for a full post, but such is pandemic/academic (pandcademic? with a silent d?) life.

This year started well with respect to research papers; one out, one accepted, two likely to be accepted by the end of the month. This after a slow 2020 where my grad students (and, let’s face it, me, too) moved through molasses.

I am feeling really irritable. I wonder if it’s because I discontinued my murder-prevention walks a month or so ago when it became too cold outside (the treadmill aggravates my joints; you hit the floor the exact same way over and over, so the same muscles and tendons get used, in contrast to walking outside, where the slight imperfections in the terrain force the foot and leg to adjust). All I know is that I am even more irritated than before by people talking sloooooowly, or generally taking forever to utter perfectly predictable, boring opinions.

I have to admit, I love, love, LOVE not having to attend meetings in person. In-person meetings bring me a lot of stress. It goes something like this: Something is being discussed (usually slooooowly and boringly) and I either manage to prevent myself from speaking, which is optimal for everyone involved, or I fail to prevent myself from talking and end up feeling like an impatient, blathering fool and deeply regret having spoken. I always regret having spoken, even when — especially when! — someone comes to tell me they’re happy I spoke. So, these Zoom meetings are great because I can turn off my camera and just do my own thing while others talk, or even when I can’t, I can still check email and otherwise divert my attention so I don’t get in trouble.

It’s amazing how stressful speaking up is in academia. Not just among colleagues in the department, but in the professional community. I find all academic communities to be pretty unnerving and, after nearly two decades of getting stressed out, just plain exhausting. I manage to dissociate before I need to go give a talk, shove my feelings deep down, and put on my dog-and-pony show, but the whole being out in the world with other scientists is really much more unpleasant than it would have to be. And I’m what you’d generally call a socially well-adjusted individual with decent communication skills.

There’s a cool piece of work my group did in loose collaboration (more like consultancy) with an experimentalist. This collaborator is a pretty intimidating individual, so I don’t really like to interact with him more than necessary. He liked the paper and asked if I’d sent it to a third person, whom I find an order of magnitude more scary than the collaborator and thus actively avoid. (I don’t think the scary men miss having me around, as I am pretty sure they think I am stupid.) However, I have had collaborations in the past, with some great people, where I’ve actually felt comfortable and appreciated. A close collaborative relationship (this holds for advising, too) has to be such that the parties are comfortable brainstorming and saying stupid things and being wrong and playing off each other. I can’t work with people who are too invested in projecting the persona of a scary know-it-all, always the smartest person in any room. Maybe that’s why I will always be a Smalltown Grocer and never a Big Dog PI or whatever, but there’s something to be said for thinking in peace and being comfortable and sharing ideas without trepidation, because I am pretty sure I am not actually stupid.

Wow, I guess I did have things to say!

How’s it going, blogosphere? How are your relationships within collaborative endeavors?


  1. What you said, both about speaking up in meetings and regretting it, and not wanting to collaborate or interact with people with whom I don’t feel comfortable, strongly resonates with me.

    How do you deal with these issues? Do you have any advice for someone who is younger and less accomplished than you are who faces similar struggles? I used to speak up a lot at meetings because I thought I should push for what I thought was right; now, I’m not sure that its worth risking the humiliation and dealing with the unpleasant fallout when nothing is likely to change, but the older I get, the more I still feel like if I don’t express myself then I’m accepting some responsibility for the continuing dysfunction. And I’m talking about technical/organizational issues related to projects, not directly about social justice/morality type issues.

  2. So I’m on this second stage proposal for an NSF grant and the first stage was to have a conference and the granting agency has signaled that they REALLY want us to come up with something they can fund. The PI is a rainmaker who is a disorganized genius. I’m one of two co-PI getting funded on the planning grant. OMG I want off this grant proposal so badly now. One of the people she invited invited a big name white dude who does qualitative work in a different social science and then he invited many of his indoctrinated graduated students who are still in academia, and they in turn invited more people so now it’s this group of qualitative researchers who all say that the area of work that the grant is on doesn’t actually exist (which would be a huge surprise to both the social sciences of economics and psychology as well as the majority of people who study this topic in their social science). And the senior white dude talks and talks and talks and refuses to be interrupted and is wrong and boring. And everyone else plays “woker than thou” which gets everything completely off-topic. And the PI wants to meet an hour a week until mid March with these people AND she just put me on a mailing list for some university group (I just learned how to use outlook to filter directly into trash– there have been 8 emails in the last half hour since she signed me up).

    DH is still unemployed and all my other grants just ended or end in April, so if I want more RAs and summer salary, I need money. But what seemed like something that would be kind of a fun thing with a bunch of engineers and me providing the social science has turned into dreadful meetings that go nowhere with one engineer and a bunch of idiots who don’t believe that the mainstream quantitative work I do is “critical theory” or something and this mansplainer blathering on.

    I’m trying to figure out if I can disengage and maybe still get a little money without going crazy, or if I should just chuck it all and let the PI deal with these crazy people herself. But then I have to deal with her feeling bad and trying to convince me to stay whereas ghosting wouldn’t have that problem. I do know that there is NO WAY IN HELL that I can be in a meeting for an hour a week with this guy who I hate with the core of my being. I’m pretty sure I would just shut down zoom before actually hurting anybody, so there’s that.

    Re: giving talks, I generally practice a lot and feel pretty good about them. I am terrible at small talk and sometimes say stupid ridiculous things and feel bad later (sometimes years later). I’m not afraid of big names in my field because my grad school experience burned that out of me (or celebrities because I don’t care or politicians because I have to meet them for work as fellow public servants sometimes). But I am terrified of meeting my favorite fiction authors–It’s like they can get into my brain.

  3. I’ve noticed that I find it easier to speak up in technical committees now on Zoom than in a meeting room full of people. When I’m in the same space with them, part of my brain focuses on analyzing their bodylanguage and providing me with a steady commentary on what, from this analysis, they must be thinking about me and my opinion. That layer of worry is gone when we’re online.

  4. I should be clear about the “woker than thou” comment– the grant is to come up with engineering ways fix a problem, and people keep focusing on showing how knowledgeable they are that there is a problem and the depth of the problem, which everyone including the grant agency already knows. Which doesn’t help with fixing it, especially since they don’t tie it back to potential solutions or potential things to look out for.

  5. Could you invest in some snow pants and boots and keep your walks? I also walk daily, and live in Alberta. It was -20 here today (I think that’s like -3 F or something) and I just bundled up like the Michelin man. It’s actually much better exercise I find too, with all the gear on. And when there’s fresh snow on the ground to trudge through it’s even more cardio-intense!

  6. nicoleandmaggie, perhaps you and the engineer(s) should quietly talk to the program manager about doing a separate grant proposal and withdraw from the one that has become nonfunctional.

    The engineers are probably even more horrified than you, and the program manager would probably shitcan the project if the proposal comes out the way you describe the group going.

  7. N&M, +1 what gasstationwithoutpumps says. Bloated dysfunctional projects do not get funded. Start a new lean team with the folks who are focused on/excited by the technical work.

  8. There’s one engineer (plus her lab, and the main grad student on the project recently sent an email saying people don’t seem to want to change feasible thing, they want to transform the entire system— which if I were a potential industry partner I’d politely decline) and she’s the PI and on board (the one hoping for and suggesting weekly meetings going forward) and we’re only allowed one second stage proposal and she has to be on it unless she transfers the PI.

    But yeah, the way it’s going it probably won’t be funded. Because there’s a reason these people only think big thoughts about how everyone else is wrong and never actually do anything.

  9. Oh I see, you’re saying to talk to the program manager. I should probably suggest that the PI do it. I don’t have a relationship with her (other than being on one group call where we clarified that she wanted us to throw a conference) and I don’t want to stir up trouble.

  10. This speaks to me so much. Thank you. Also reassuring you’ve been successful anyway. Maybe I will be as well!

  11. All of the people who terrify me in my field are in Europe, so luckily being in the U.S. there is nary an occasion for me to run into scary people. Europeans are generally terrifying 🙂

  12. LOL They are, aren’t they? I remember my professors in undergrad (in Europe) were all unapproachable egomaniacs. Every interaction came with a dose of light (or not so light) bullying. Ego cultivation and re-enforcing the hierarchy is built into the education system in many (most?) places. It’s also much harder for young people to become independent academics in Europe than it is in the US.

  13. OMG – I made the European comment slightly tongue in cheek, but that’s exactly what it is like! I don’t know why, but it’s comforting to know that the hierarchical model is not field specific. I look over the pond at a bloc of white dudes and they all scowl back, if they even bother to notice me stuck to the bottom of their shoe. Not a warm and fuzzy bunch!

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