Strike a balance between egotist and sucker

June 11, 2004

Academics need to be focused on research, but job selection also favours the team player, says Tim Birkhead

Always astute in his observations, Darwin wrote the following in Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man : "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright."

I recently heard of someone who was shortlisted for an academic position somewhere in Europe. Following the interviews, the rank order of the candidates was made public (as is usual on the Continent) and the successful candidate announced. One of the unsuccessful candidates who was disappointed by the decision promptly went off to look up the publications and citation indices of those interviewed and was incensed to discover a negative association between scientific prestige and the rank order.

Such emotions are understandable but miss an important point. While government ranking schemes such as the research assessment exercise might lead us to believe that academic achievement is the only criterion that matters for getting a position, the truth is often rather different. Some departments at least take other factors into account when making appointments, including the nebulous notion of whether someone will be a good academic colleague.

Obviously, there is a trade-off: if a candidate was utterly brilliant, it might not matter if they were a complete ****, and in selecting someone for a post it is always a delicate balance between the two. What a good head of department wants is the best of all possible worlds: high-quality research and a unified body of colleagues rather than a bunch of brilliant backbiting prima donnas.

The emphasis on research output has fostered a football-transfer mentality in universities, and favoured - like sexual selection - extreme selfishness in its employees, especially among the academic equivalents of David Beckham. Many researchers believe that by focusing on their research to the exclusion of almost all other considerations, they will be more productive, do better science and ultimately be more successful. Certainly to be successful researchers have to be focused and competitive, but they do not need to be completely selfish. In fact there is a continuum, from the sucker (an endangered species in academia) who agrees to every request, through to the self-obsessed egomaniac who refuses to do anything that reduces their output and impedes their progress. The ultimate bad colleague is someone who dumps on others; refusing to answer emails (but expecting you to do so immediately); never getting round to reading their students'

thesis chapters (but happily suggesting that the student asks you to); agreeing to serve on an editorial board (for the kudos) but refusing to ever referee a paper; and so on. We've all seen it.

Successful academics are selfish - to some degree. The issue is one of academic etiquette and where you lie on the sucker/scrote continuum. We each make our own decisions about that, but of course, it is unlikely that our colleagues will feel we have chosen the optimal position - from their perspective. At the end of the day it depends on how much you care about social relations. As in non-humans, the glue that holds individuals together in friendships, coalitions or consortia is reciprocation.

Darwin was able to get away with being utterly selfish. Not being part of a university department meant he was largely unconstrained by the necessity of reciprocal altruism. Not only was he financially independent, he used his illness to keep unwanted visitors at bay and was completely indulged by his dutiful wife, Emma. Paradoxically perhaps, their relationship was - in a peculiar way - a reciprocal one, since Emma loved it when Charles was sick for then she had him all to herself. Judging from the earlier quote, Darwin was not so selfish that he was unaware of this.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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