Bullets of Ego

  • Remember months (years?) ago when Pete Davidson dated Ariana Grande (Why do I even know about this? Social media, that’s why), which popularized the term “big dick energy” (BDE) to denote a person who is quietly confident (because they know they’re packin’) and doesn’t have to rub their qualities (ahem) in everyone’s face. Apparently, BDE is perceived subliminally and is very attractive. Someone being all up in your face with their perceived awesomeness, trying to get you to acknowledge them, is said to have “small dick energy.”
  • I remember the movie “The Social Network,” where Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend tells him something along the lines of, “You think people don’t like you because you are a nerd. But actually people don’t like you because you’re an asshole.”
  • Anyway, these days I am thinking about how it would be really nice if there were more BDE people in academia. People who are competent and confident, but not jerks about it. They go about their business, doing their work, advising students, being colleagues, and not having to measure dicks against others at every turn. Not have to constantly show they’re the smartest person in every room. Not have to put people down with no good reason.
  • By extension, I’d like it to not be automatically assumed that, just because someone is kind and calm, they aren’t competent or confident, or just because someone is supportive and helpful, they aren’t an ambitious. I wish people stopped assuming outward self-confidence were a proxy for competence. Haven’t we learned anything from 2016 — 2020?
  • I’ve been interviewing prospective students, and there are a couple who are confident. Very confident. Very, very confident. So confident they are really obnoxious about it. I am sure they were told about having to be boastful in the US, and it’s true in the sense that self-promotion is much more overt and expected in the US than elsewhere in the world, but self-promotion is a fine skill and it’s very easy to land on the side of annoying. So annoying that it will likely disqualify them from admission into my group, because people with outsize egos are exhausting to work with. But such students are brilliant, you might say. Not brilliant enough to justify them being as exasperating they usually are.
  • In a multi-PI collaboration, a brand new male assistant professor who joins the collaboration late is automatically afforded respect. I have to battle with a male PhD student of another PI, a student who is writing his first paper, about technical details pertaining to my group’s part of the work, about the text we contributed, about everything. Every detail is a struggle. (You don’t want to even know how my female postdoc gets piled on when I don’t attend the collaboration meeting.) Being a female professor is a little like being queer, in that you have come out over and over and over again, to everyone individually, only in the case of a female professor it’s having to convince people of your competence, over and over and over again, even people twenty years your junior who should assume you know something based on seniority alone, but they never do.
  • This shit is so exhausting.


  1. Solidarity from me as well. I currently have a male undergraduate whose attitude to every seminar is to point score and challenge me. Like it’s a game if he can catch me out. It’s infuriating.

    As a UK person though, it would be great if the US could push back on self-promotion but also beefing up every applicant for a PhD or job. It’s impossible to take references from the US seriously, because everyone is always brilliant, the best student you’ve ever had, etc, etc. And when it’s the other way round and you have to write references for applications to the USA, it’s stressful thinking that you have to say someone is top 1% or you might as well not bother. At least, that’s the perception over here.

  2. At the beginning of your post, I thought “Can women even have big dick energy? Is it even appropriate to talk about that?” And by the end of your post, I saw the answer is no. Or rather, maybe women have BDE, but it will never be recognized as such.

  3. @Julie: I am so sorry about that undergraduate. Students like this take a lot out of you. Remove him from your sphere if/when you can. It’s not worth it.

    Regarding letters, I hear you. We do routinely solicit letters from Europe and Asia, and we fully expect them not to be effusive but rather matter-of-fact, and we re-normalize accordingly. I know it seems like everything is turned up to 11 in the US, but once you’ve been steeped in the local academic culture and have read a bunch of these superficially glowing letters, you can actually extract meaningful information from them; there are definite differences between glowing and glowing, depending on what the letter writer’s true opinion is. But yes, this communication is not as direct as is perhaps custom in Europe, but the information is there in what’s not being said as much as (or more than) it is in what’s being said. The US people might overfocus on strengths and omit or significantly downplay weaknesses. For example, I won’t mention an aspect in which a person is weak, or will mention it as briefly and as matter-of-factly as I can (“He has received two grants to support his work” — I will offer no opinion on whether it’s good or bad or anything, just state this fact). There’s of lot of reading between the lines. It would be easier if things were direct, but that goes against the grain of academic culture here.

  4. re: letters: Can attest that my glowing letters are definitely coded for different levels of glowing (and of course, if I can’t glow at all I tell them I can’t write a letter). It’s an art.

    It’s similar to how the number and placement of exclamation points in an email is important for nuance…

  5. omg, yes. I used to take some pleasure in being underestimated and earning respect with my wonderfulness 🙂 but now I just find it exhausting because I need to do it again and again and again.

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