Ten rules for (possibly) succeeding in academia through upward kindness

Irina Dumitrescu’s tips for ‘upward toxicity’ was THE’s most-read article of 2019. But it doesn’t have to be this way, says John Tregoning

December 19, 2019
Source: Reuters

Even as a piece of satire, the recent description in Times Higher Education of an academic system where being an upwardly toxic asshat is the only way to succeed was pretty depressing (“Ten rules for succeeding in academia through upward toxicity”, Opinion, 21 November).

But I don’t believe that academic life has to be that way. Together, we can flip the narrative, highlighting collegiality and inclusivity, and ultimately building something bigger and better. This suggestion may open me up to criticism that I am hopelessly naive (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been told that). But what the hell. It is nearly Christmas, so here are my 10 rules for promoting peace and goodwill in academia.

After all, even if academia’s Scrooges are unlikely to be as rapidly converted to righteousness as Dickens’ miser, we owe it to Bob Cratchit to at least try the Jacob Marley routine.

  1. Cultivate friends. Academic jobs can be extremely lonely, particularly when you have taken a beating from a reviewer or had your spirits crushed by yet another grant rejection. Turning to colleagues for a bit of uplift is vital. But a network of awesomeness amounts to so much more than mutual support in hard times: it can lead to collaborations and trips to new cities, exotic locales and small industrial estates outside Gdansk, Poland.
  2. Be kinder. You will be called upon throughout your career to comment on grants and papers. Remember the amount of personal, intellectual and emotional investment that goes into these. Yes, identify structural flaws and suggest fixes, but do it in a way that enables rather than stunts growth.
  3. Call out bad behaviour. If you are in a senior role, use it to drive positive changes. Be brave: you are probably in a more secure position than the victims are to complain.
  4. Don’t be “that guy”. If you are a straight, white man, accept that there needs to be a rebalancing of the system. This may have an impact on your career, and that is OK.
  5. Only bitch sideways. While I want academia to be a better place, I am not a saint. There is clearly a place for venting about awful colleagues. Gossip is a fundamental human need, just above food on the Maslow hierarchy. But – and this is really important – pick your audience carefully. Don’t bad-mouth supervisors to their students and don’t bad-mouth students to their supervisors. When you must vent, choose a friend at the same level as you, who is not going to be swayed by what you say and is unlikely to pass the gossip forwards.
  6. Work less. While it is an admirable goal, it probably isn’t possible to succeed in academia working a strict 35-hour week. It pains me to admit this and I am not sure what the solution is. But stating publicly that you work every hour of every day can put a lot of pressure on others to keep up: particularly those with other interests outside academia, such as eating or sleeping.
  7. Develop talent and pay it forward. There is a social contract in academia. We got our positions through the support and mentorship of others, so we need to take time to support others further down the tree – thereby leaving academia better than we found it. No one remembers the Nobel prize winners from three years ago, but everyone remembers their own PhD supervisor.
  8. Practise constructive alignment. Academics are largely judged on their personal outputs, rather than whether they have been part of an amazing team. Sadly, this means that individuals are incentivised to act for their own best interests. However, it is possible to set shared goals so that you pull together with your team and everyone benefits.
  9. Remember that academia isn’t the only career. A lot of toxic behaviour results from buying into the narrative that academic careers are the only careers that matter. According to this mindset, if you leave the academy, you have failed – which, in turn, leads to aggressive approaches in order not only to stay employed but to get to the top. Remember that being an academic is just one of many career options, not only for your trainees but for yourself.
  10. Share the wealth. There are more than enough ideas out there. As principal investigators, we have multiple ongoing streams of research, meaning that each individual idea is proportionally less valuable to us than to the people specifically working on it. Be generous with who gets to take your ideas forward.

It won’t escape the more observant of you that these suggestions are literally the opposite of the approach suggested for upward toxicity. Of course, there is no evidence that a kinder approach will make you similarly upwardly mobile. But just imagine if it did.

My Christmas wish is for enough like-minded souls out there to work together to change things for the better. Failing that, I would like a big, red, India-rubber ball.

John Tregoning is reader in respiratory infections at Imperial College London.

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Reader's comments (4)

I hope we all get your wish for next year; and you get you big red India-Rubber Ball and may be a pocket knife that really cuts.
After Christmas, (if there are any in the January sales), I will buy and send you a big, red, India-rubber ball. I do like some of the ideas put forward in this article. However, in the U.K. and all round the world, there are too many vested interests and scientific pirates, quite willing to steal your original ideas and have their (often) huge research groups do the experiments in a few weeks and publish them without you or your name appearing on any published works/grants etc. I have had my ideas pirated in the U.K .and abroad on three separate occasions, over 35 years, all of which resulted in highly cited papers in high impact factor journals (without my name as an author). My advice to students/post-docs is, wherever possible to keep your best ideas to yourself and not disclose them when you are not in a position to be able to do the experiments, publish and get the paper/grant/ next research job yourself.
Thank you! I love this. Let’s flip the narrative in 2020. Kindness is a superpower that connects us. We need it more than ever if we are to protect what is great about our universities
Admirable suggestions.