The Dark Side of Academia

by Svelte

The Dark Side

My graduate friends and I had a gathering yesterday, and I heard an upsetting story from one of them.

One of my friend’s supervisor discourages her to present any work-in-progress at conferences. I thought it strange because I have already presented preliminary findings at two conferences and recently submitted another paper to an upcoming conference. Also, doing so adds credentials to your CV, which can help you get more scholarships.

Here’s the reason why. This supervisor was a PhD student at an ivy league school in the states, and she presented her preliminary findings for her dissertation at a lab meeting. There was a student (or post doc?) from another institution who attended this talk.

Awhile later, this supervisor received an email from a professor who was reviewing articles that someone just submitted an article about a study that was practically the same as what the supervisor was doing. So that professor rejected that submission.

Another while later, another professor also reviewing articles told the supervisor that there was an article about a study that was practically the same as what the supervisor was doing! So that professor also rejected that submission.

Turns out, that bastard student/post doc who attended the supervisor’s PhD talk COPIED her ideas, conducted a study on it, and tried to get it published before her. Luckily, that field is kind of small and those two professors who were reviewers knew about the supervisor’s work. In the end though, that bastard still got published because he/she submitted to a European journal, and no one knew the supervisor there.

The story ended well in the sense that the supervisor still managed to get her PhD and is now a professor at my institution, but the story doesn’t end well in the sense that she is forever paranoid about others stealing ideas. Academics make their name (and money) out of being the first to come up with ideas or studies, so they have to be guarded with their novel research.

Luckily, in my lab, my supervisor did not have that experience and encourages knowledge sharing and collaboration*. Instead of going through graduate school in fear, we are experiencing a more supportive, growth inspiring, and collaborative culture. For that I am also thankful.

(*Also, from presenting preliminary findings at conferences, we learned that someone else is doing something scarily similar to us. Because we learned about this early, we get the chance to mitigate the potential negative consequences.)

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