Everyone LOVES the Freakazoid Professor...so long as she's productive.

Aug 18 2008 Published by under Diversity in Science, Tribe of Science

Academia is notoriously tolerant of the unusual, the strange, the eccentric and the just plain freaky Professor. Some of this is undeserved, there are plenty of perfectly normal people (like me!) who make a go of it in academic research science. Other people have....quirks. Sharp edges that might be hammered down in other fields of endeavor. Or at least edges that must be guarded with a protective covering in the work environment, rather than brandished like a sacred talisman. Professor in Training opened the discussion with a query:

I'm just curious as to whether your perceptions of colleagues are altered if they have atypical non-work interests.
Ok, here's an extreme, ridiculous example ... if one of your colleagues was a brilliant teacher and well funded and respected researcher but you found out they had a penchant for Barbie dolls (male colleague) or monster truck rallies (female colleague), would you see them in a different light?

Short answer: It's all good in science.


Of course, there is a long answer.
Let's start with YHN's approach to worrying about big picture lifestyle stuff and how it is going to be viewed by one's institution and peers, in short how it is going to affect one's career. Fuck 'em!
Life is just too damn short. If there are things that are important to you, do them. Will if affect your career prospects? Sure, it might. But what's the alternative? You create some faux version of yourself just so you'll make tenure? In academics? One of the more tolerant working cultures? Not worth it.
So let me think about some of the discordant freaks of my experience.
1) Athletic obsession. D00d, this is not even discordant. People practically expect academics to engage in sports these days! I know of the running-obsessed, an infamous multi-institute soccer game (networking, yo!), cyclists, faculty softball leaguers, Institutional golf tourney, the (many) campus basketball games, the pros who wear those disgusting Dolphin shorts all afternoon (and nothing else) post-run... The list goes on and on. And yes, to address PiT's point, even some sports that seem a little out there. Like the violent ones. Admittedly, I haven't yet run across any fight-clubbers but hockey, football, ruggers...all good.
2) Appearance. HAHAHHAHAHAAHAH!!!!! aah, I crack myself up. Srsly. C'mon. I've seen it all. The dressed-to-the nines (both sexes). Near-homeless-person chic. Too formal. Too informal. A bit too sexy (both sexes). Midlife crisis tattoos/hairstyle revision/body adornment. Or younger generation same.
3) Hobbies. umm, okay, I've never run across too much in the way of personal hobbies like knitting or stamp collecting or anything- but what would be the difference? Having bands that actually book gigs, comedy acts, etc..sure.
There is a reality part of this however, which is Prof in Training's real point. What are the risks?
Well it is just like anything else. You. Have. To. Produce! If you are doing good science that your department likes, nothing else matters. In fact you will find that those unusual parts of your life will be a strong positive, giving seminar introductions that personal touch, used to defuse a nerdy scientist stereotype or even personalizing those donor-soliciting pamphlets your University generates. "Prof Smith just won a multi-million dollar research award for OurAuldUniversity and oh, btw, loves to train for her sub-3hr marathons with the six retired-from-racing greyhounds she has adopted."
Of course, if you are a borderline tenure case, "Prof Jones just isn't committed to his science because he spends all his damn time flying airplanes".
Like I said above, Life is too short. Just Do It*.
__
*This blogger is not sponsored by any commercial entities which cater to the recreational or diversionary side of life.

43 responses so far

  • Coturnix says:

    Dress "codes" differ by Department. If it is applied science (animal science, food science, poultry science...), they all wear ties. In biology, more lab more formal, more field more informal. Physics - are they even conscious when they throw some clothes on?

  • Becca says:

    I know a lot of academic knitters. I'm really suprised you haven't- maybe they just hide it from most people (too "girly"?). FWIW, I would much rather have a male barbie collector collegue than a female one, and much rather have a female monster truck rally affectionado than a similar male.
    Also, I think there may be few "fight clubbers" but I know some pretty fierce martial artist-biologists.
    Still, I don't think it's hobbies so much as viewpoints that can cause problems in academia. Like supporting homeschooling. Or animal rights. Or GBLT advocacy. Or feminism. Or cooperatives.
    All of these things are outside the "mainstream" of academics I know. I've had cause to worry about advocay on each of those issues. I'm not going to whine about being oppressed... I'm just saying although academia can be suprisingly welcoming of *society's* oddballs, it's still not exactly quite as big a tent as you seem to imply.
    And clothing freedom is not universal (I had an MD PI who wouldn't let me wear shirts without sleeves because it was indecent!).

  • I second Becca. My old lab had both a Rush-Limbaugh-parroting rabid Republican and a born-again Christian. There was a lot less tolerance for these folks than for the ones with more "amusing" hobbies, such as the grad student who was the lead singer of a folk band, the tech who was a competitive swimmer, and the professor across the hall who was an alcoholic (that last one's another tale altogether).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    alcoholism is a "hobby", dgt?

  • Mad Hatter says:

    I think the perception of productivity is the more likely issue when it comes to hobbies. People I've worked with tend to hide the fact that they have hobbies, rather than what their specific hobbies are.

  • Well, he certainly made a hobby out of it. In fact, were there to be some kind of Alkie Olympics, I'm confident he'd have beaten Michael Phelps's medal records.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    becca: it's still not exactly quite as big a tent as you seem to imply.
    Just because it is one of the more tolerant employment settings doesn't mean that I think it is some sort of UtopianBigTent encouraging all behaviors and attitudes conceivable. Not what I was saying at all. I would, however, challenge you to find a major job segment that does a better job in tolerating and encouraging a diverse workforce...
    what's the beef with homeschooling anyway? Are you suggesting that anyone other than the random ashklown blogger has a serious problem with homeschooling which leads to discrimination in employment?
    and what the heck is a 'cooperative' in this context?

  • PhysioProf says:

    The more grants and publications I amass, the more slovenly my attire becomes!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Stephanie Z says:

    As a "freak" in the corporate sphere, there are two big differences that I see. One is that you have to be, not just very good, but indispensible to earn the same kind of leeway you get in academia. This is why IT had a reputation for allowing anything when just a few people knew how it all worked and is becoming more corporatized now that most jobs are routine. Places like Google still attract the best by allowing the leeway to be strange if you blow them away.
    The second difference is the lack of tenure. In the corporate world, you never get to stop being indispensible, and you get to prove it all over again every time management changes. Whee. Optionally, you can just walk around all day with a quiet little smile instead and not tell your coworkers what's going on behind it. A reputation for being boring is safer and gives you one more thing to laugh about after hours.

  • Becca says:

    @dgt- I'm pretty sure it's in "poor taste" to laugh at that, but I still did.
    I am also familiar with the attitude Mad Hatter describes. And the one PP indicates.
    You have a good point, DM. I should not take ashklowns seriously.
    Although, when I moved states, I found I got radically different responses to the "I was homeschooled" comment. Old State had lax homeschooling laws, New State has strict laws + somewhat hardcore religious homeschoolers. Methinks it is not so much that academics are befuddled by homeschooling, but that anti-religon prejuduice rubs off on it. I can only imagine what it might be like if I wore a headscarf/Hijab or something.
    The cooperatives that I was involved with that made people look at me a bit funny were the one I called "hippie camp" as kid (http://www.circlepinescenter.org/) and the 15-member vegetarian eco-friendly housing co-op I lived in during college. Academics (in general) like latte-liberals. Actual "why don't we make everything non-profit?" socialists who grew up singing "Universal Soldier"? That scares a suprising amount of people (abeit probably *fewer* in academia than most places).
    I'm not sure it counts as a "major job segment" but the people that come to my mind as most open-minded are actually librarians. Anecdotal, to be sure.

  • cashmoney says:

    How many more papers until you hit "debate coach", PP?

  • sng says:

    In my experience it's the same in private industry. Granted you have to be really damned good at what you do. Merely productive isn't enough. But if you pull miracles out of thin air on a regular basis people don't bother worrying about quirks. I should know.

  • Thomas M. says:

    Out of curiosity, can a guy with long hair looking for a professorship (or coming up for tenure) reasonably expect to not face much discrimination?
    I don't mind cutting my hair at some point (I see myself as cutting and regrowing at various points in my life) but I will be extremely frustrated if I have to cut it on the grounds that I'm going to be denied a job/tenure if I don't because A. someone thinks I'm a hippie (far from it) and/or B. someone thinks that a hippie belongs in the humanities department, not the science department. I'd like to know ahead of time if I should prepare for this, if it varies widely by geography, field of choice, etc.

  • PhysioProf says:

    As far as I can tell, no one gives a flying fuck if a male scientist has long hair.

  • Toaster says:

    Long hair shouldn't really matter much in the sciences, so long as it is kept neat and in order. I had really long hair, but I work in a BSL2+ laboratory and long hair can be a liability (e.g., Bunsen burners, getting itchy or in the eyes when suited up for sterile work). I also had the problem of my hair never staying back in its ponytail, which occasionally led to issues (e.g., my hair in biohazard samples). So I cut it. Makes life easier. Your own choice, ultimately.

  • NM says:

    There's no way any member of a senior science committee can give you crap about long hair. They were all in their 20s and 30s in the 70s. We have too much photographic evidence that once upon a time, they too, were hippies with long hair.

  • Thomas M. says:

    "Long hair shouldn't really matter much in the sciences, so long as it is kept neat and in order. I had really long hair, but I work in a BSL2+ laboratory and long hair can be a liability (e.g., Bunsen burners, getting itchy or in the eyes when suited up for sterile work). I also had the problem of my hair never staying back in its ponytail, which occasionally led to issues (e.g., my hair in biohazard samples). So I cut it. Makes life easier. Your own choice, ultimately."
    I can understand where you're coming from here - fortunately, long hair is partly a functional decision for me. I have pretty thick hair (as a point of reference, it is currently best described as Newton Hair) so when it's short it tends to develop all sorts of cowlicks and fall in my face a lot unless I cut it extremely short (crew cut), when it's long I can just tie it back easily and solve the problem.
    NM, I must say, that made me laugh very fucking hard for some reason. Thanks.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    Regardless of productivity, I have found that the following are not well tolerated in academia, and may be seen as beyond the pale:
    1)Tee-totaling, especially at conferences
    2)Conventional religious practices
    3)Support for the Iraq War
    4)Approval of President Bush (gasp!)
    Although I have no direct experience, I suspect that the corporate world would be more tolerant of all but the first.

  • PhysioProf says:

    The requirement for rational reality-based thinking in academia does tend to naturally weed out deranged right-wing wackaloon fucknozzles, libertarians, and other ethically, philosophically, and pragmatically bankrupt individuals.

  • Lou says:

    Having shared labspace with a male PI who didn't understand the concept of "personal hygiene", but was raking in loadsa money and publicity for his department, I think anything goes in academic science as long as you bring in the money...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Neuro-con @#18: While I was talking more about hobbies and diversions and not really discussing religion or politics, I do disagree with you. In specific terms, I've known a couple of political conservatives who had perfectly viable careers in a much more liberal department. Admittedly they had tenure by the time I ran across them so I don't know if they hid their politics until tenure or not. In general terms there is a real dearth of evidence regarding people being denied tenure for political orientation- say in comparison to the evidence on gender, racial and sexual orientation discrimination.
    You could point to numbers relative to the general population but that is a weak argument when the political orientation itself is antithetical to choosing a life of under-remunerated public service, of open knowledge seeking, etc that is the very definition of the University professor job.

  • scicurious says:

    I think I have to disagree just a little. I almost didn't get into grad school because of my "quirks". The grad students all get one vote (all together) about who makes it in to the program for the next year (due to the time they spend around the newbs at recruitment, they might know them better, etc). They voted against having me in the program because I was "weird". They are all atheletes, and they heard that I "sang opera" (I'm a professional vocalist, but I never said anything about opera). Luckily, all the profs voted for me, but I suffered some pretty extreme ostracism and predjudice. It had nothing to do with the science I produced, because they hadn't given me a chance to produce any yet. So I think some departments may be more accepting of the odd than others.

  • CC says:

    Although I have no direct experience, I suspect that the corporate world would be more tolerant of all but the first.
    The corporate world hasn't been heavy-drinking for a couple of decades, at least. Tenured professors are the only remaining people who can get loaded around coworkers with no fear of consequences.
    ...the political orientation itself is antithetical to choosing a life of under-remunerated public service, of open knowledge seeking, etc that is the very definition of the University professor job.
    I don't think that underlying logic is at all correct anyway, but surely you're not saying that people pursue research careers for any reason but selfish pleasure in discovery?!? If you're becoming a scientist out of a self-sacrificing desire to serve humanity, I can suggest much higher-percentage ways to do so.

  • CC says:

    Also:
    1) I was wondering if DM's younger readers even know what Dolfin shorts were, but a Wikipedia entry I found while looking for a picture claims they made a comeback in 2007. Hanging on to my old Zubaz may yet prove to be a wise move.
    2) Thomas M., if you still have a thick full head of hair to cut by the time you're up for tenure, consider yourself lucky.

  • David Marjanović says:

    Regardless of productivity, I have found that the following are not well tolerated in academia, and may be seen as beyond the pale:
    1)Tee-totaling, especially at conferences

    I've had no problem with this so far at all. And alcohol stinks, for the record.

    3)Support for the Iraq War
    4)Approval of President Bush (gasp!)

    Wwwwelllll... both of these mean that the individual in question is either utterly uninformed or seriously stupid or both, and each of these possibilities is at odds with being a scientist. After all, science investigates reality, and reality has a well-known liberal bias.
    That said, conservative academics with tenure do exist, and I'd be surprised if each of them carefully hid their political orientation till tenure. Unless it hits them directly (budget cuts for example), scientists don't tend to talk to each other about politics much, in my limited experience at least. Scientists much prefer to talk shop. šŸ™‚

  • Thomas M. says:

    I'm taking a shot in the dark here, but I think that whether being 'conservative' (I use that term loosely since there are a great number of different conservative viewpoints out there, some of which will be less offensive than others) would cause problems with getting tenure or not probably has to do with the nature of your views and how you express them. For example, there's a thick line between being pro-gun and not denying that position if being asked about it and being Ted Nugent. The former probably isn't going to get you denied tenure (though it may result in some bitterness between you and a few other colleagues) while the latter probably has a better chance of it. In other words, I think it's more about not being an iconoclast until post-tenure than your political views in themselves. Albeit, you'll probably have a lot more trouble if you hold certain views - I can see a conservative of the libertarian variety getting into a lot less trouble than one who labeled him or herself a fascist.

  • Coriolis says:

    scicurious, I've never even heard of graduate students having a vote on who gets to be in a grad school program. That's really bizarre to me.
    As for the topic at hand, at least in physics it seems like anything goes. I know all sorts of weird professors and graduate students - including myself in the last category. Of course having "bad" social abilities can be a problem, but I think most people separate that quite well from let's say someone who walks around in all black (in all seasons), or doesn't know about hygiene or giggles uncontrollably all the time and the like. Oh and if you wear a tie, you almost certainly will get laughed at.
    And neuro-con, at least for physics in my experience I don't think anyone would seriously make an issue of 2) (unless you actually try to preach to people). Good friends can argue alot about religion (I certainly do), but unless you actually try to impose your faith it shouldn't matter. Technically, 3)&4) might also be ok, but I've yet to see anyone who still believes in those and is sane, so I wouldn't know.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I took a break from building and flying model airplanes when I started PhD work, and resumed after making Full Professor. It was, in my case, a matter of spending time and focus. One of our respected music professors raised nationals-winning fancy chickens.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    scicurious, I've never even heard of graduate students having a vote on who gets to be in a grad school program. That's really bizarre to me.
    IME there are two things that are quite common. First, a graduate student representative on the admissions committee who participates in the initial screening process. Second, for programs in which formal offers are not made until after prospective students visit, the student hosts' opinions are sought as much as the faculty interviewers' opinions.
    the notion of the entire body of current graduate students voting a prospect off the island, so to speak, is bizarre to me; but perhaps scicurious was simply being imprecise.

  • scicurious says:

    It's possible that I was being imprecise, the graduate student body as a department votes, and the sum of those votes is made into one vote per prospective student to be cast by the graduate representative on the admissions committee. So I would have been unanimously voted in were it not for the dissenting vote. As it was, I obviously got in, but it made for some tough times my first year.
    We also get asked individually about prospective students that we have spent time with, but most of the time we're nice unless someone admits to a drug problems or a previous criminal record. In this case, it was just because they disliked my "hobby", which I have since discarded in favor of more socially acceptable ones.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    it was just because they disliked my "hobby", which I have since discarded in favor of more socially acceptable ones.
    such as blogging??????

  • NM says:

    Since when was singing socially unacceptable?
    I know my singing is socially unacceptable, but that's a different story...

  • PhysioProf says:

    Dude, blogging is not a hobby! Blogging is serious shit! You just MORTALLY INSULTED blogging! You must be EXPELLED FROM SCIENCEBLOGS!!!

  • scicurious says:

    Hahahaha!! No, blogging was not the replacement for my hobby, IT IS MY LIFE!!! (whether or not my life is "serious shit" remains open for the many levels of interpretation that offers.)
    The replacement was distance running. Athletics are apparently always socially acceptable.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    scicurious -- you have got to tell us more about this. What are we missing here?
    PP, David Marjanović, Coriolis, et al -- weak, just weak. So little intellectual curiousity, so little courage of your convictions. Also ironic that you end up proving my point about the so-called "liberal" academy.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    scicurious -- I mean tell us more about why the vocalist shtick was so unacceptable. It is truly puzzling.

  • NM says:

    Athletics might be OK but you do get looked at a bit strange when you play full contact sports.

  • Becca says:

    You can definitely support Bush around here.
    @CC- if not a scientist, what do you think would be better for serving humanity (seriously)? If we could base it on *potential* for serving humanity (i.e. what the very most exceptional scientists can acomplish), or *actual* typical humanitarian utility (or lack there of)?

  • Kathryn says:

    "Science" isn't exactly a monoculture.
    I'm a grad student in an ecology-oriented biology department at a small rural state college in a small hippie town. We have lots of people with interesting hobbies and eco-groovy politics. It's important to serve vegetarian/vegan options at department receptions, though most of the actual faculty are from a generation that still eats meat. One of our faculty members (and a grad student from someone else's lab who just graduated) *are* in a band that has gigs. Two professors have been in the Kinetic Sculpture Race (I was on one of their teams last year and have started my own). Another grad student is a member of the university's circus club and appears in their productions.
    This is a huge contrast to my former chemistry department at a large state Research I university in a wealthy conservative city. I did a rotation in a lab where all the guys pretty much *did* have fight club, only it was jiujitsu. They played videos of practices before group meetings, questioned each other aggressively at journal club, and fervently believed it was important to invade Iraq. In fact, I found this out after mentioning a peace rally and they looked like they were going to throw me off a balcony. They also supported my PI's habit of verbally abusing his students--in my case, making cruel comments about my disabilities. I am so glad I was expelled from the program because I was too stubborn to quit even though it was horrible. Oh, and students weren't supposed to talk to anyone outside their lab because all the PIs were afraid the other labs would steal their ideas.
    I think I've probably experienced the extremes; these may be outliers, and the plural of anecdote isn't data. But I feel like posting anyhow. šŸ˜‰

  • Athletics might be OK but you do get looked at a bit strange when you play full contact sports.
    This was my original point that DrugMonkey was referring to in his post ... particularly as a female that plays a full contact sport. Some people (like my postdoc mentor) find it intensely amusing but others just think I'm a freakshow (which is obviously also true!).

  • scicurious says:

    Dang, if I knew why my singing was so weird, possibly I wouldn't have taken it up in the first place! šŸ™‚ I think it was the fact that it was classical stuff (Handel, Bach, etc) that threw them. I would say that geeks are very lacking my department, for whatever reason.
    And Professor in Training, it's true, contact sports can be looked at funny. I knew a guy who did kickboxing, and pretty soon it was all around the department that he fought guys in bars. I don't think he ever managed to convince them otherwise. Completely ridiculous, but there you go.

  • Scicurious: the misconceptions about people who play full contact sports can be hilarious. When I first meet someone, they are usually surprised to find out that I have a PhD and do sciencey stuff (I must look like I'm of below-average intelligence or something) but when they hear about the contact sport their jaws usually hit the floor ... largely because I'm of average height and slim ... unfortunately, this also plays havoc with getting dates. My reputation around the postdoc lab has been enhanced by my sporting interests though as a lot of the dumbfucks don't mess with me for fear of being hurt :))

  • Despard says:

    scicurious, sorry to hear you gave up the singing. I love singing, classical, opera, rock, musical theatre, everything, and I wouldn't give it up for any reason (save perhaps a tracheotomy). My personal opinion on quirks aligns with DM's: fuck what other people think, life's too short.

Leave a Reply