It is, after all, part of human nature. Humans are ready to make huge sacrifices to acquire a status or a position from which they can harass other human beings. Perhaps we have the unspoken urge to take revenge of the times when we were at the receiving end of such harassment. Or maybe we just tasted the sweet sensation it gives to use your power against somebody who can't fight back.
It's a quite disturbing thought: we are all a**holes, at least potentially; women and men alike (but mostly men, if you ask my personal opinion). But not all of us develop that distinct character trait. It is, sure enough, something that grows with age. Because with age come positions, prestige, power. And in positions of power it is harder to resist the urge to behave as a**holes.
Was it Groucho Marx who said "I am opposed to millionaries, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position"? Comedy has always been an egregious way to read into the petty nature of men and women. And in academia, things are probably worse than elsewhere, for one special reason.
It so happens that ever since you move the first steps in the academic world, you meet huge a**holes. Lest I get half of my colleagues angry at me, let me clarify that not all of us can be catalogued with that pictoresque word. But I would bet that most of my colleagues agree that there is some truth in that sentence.
The people we are talking about are typically tenured professors or senior researchers who, by virtue of their status, have the chance to behave despicably without paying any consequences from it. But were they a**holes in the first place, or did they develop that character trait along the way to tenure? From what we said, it seems like the seed of a**holery was there in the first place - perhaps planted there by some insuccesses in exams or other frustrations. But for sure, you need to nurture that seed to let it blossom. And in academia, that's quite easy to do.
As you move from graduate student to post-graduate research, you immediately start to experience situations where you have some power to harass your peer. That is a chance given in small doses to youngsters, lest they saturate too soon. It may be the occasional article to peer review, or the assistance to the grading of papers, or lecturing work, or the screening of some colleagues' work. In academia, or at least in some sectors of it, the more you show you are an unforgiving a**hole, the more your colleagues will respect you. Some of them may think, behind their eyebrows, that you are a jerk - but the majority will rather be impressed by your unforgiving, all-in-one-piece character, and they will repay you with more refereeing or grading or selection work. So there's the incentive. But there's more: you get a kick out of it!
As I am writing this post, I am inspired by thinking of some clear examples of the above, which I met in my career over many years.... There's the guy who spends four hours being interviewed by me for a book project, and at the end when I present him with a clip of what I want to write says he forbids me to publish it, because it is "not scholarly enough". Check. Or the professor who leads a group of analysis I as involved in, who disregarding an egregious piece of work I have spent three months putting together, decides to send an email to the reviewers saying we are dumping it, without consulting me. Check. Then, there is the spokesperson of an experiment I take part in, who decides to blacklist my name from the list of candidate speakers for talks, to punish me for something he does not like which I have written in a blog post - without letting me know. Check. Or that other spokesperson, who for a similar reason makes an attempt at kicking me out of the collaboration, while reassuring me on the phone that nothing's the matter. Oh, I have a long list - I could go on for weeks. But the point is not what I experienced. The point is: is it such an irresistible urge?
As I am writing this, I am a senior researcher and I might live a comfortable harassing life if I wanted. Not at high level, but still - there are laurea students, undergraduates, post-docs or young researchers I could have fun with. But that's not my idea of fun. So what is it? Did I not suffer enough in my youth to feel the urge to get revenge? Or was it that I refused to become a full-fledged a**hole in the first place?
Well, maybe I behave like an a**hole myself, on occasion. I sometimes fall for the urge to show I am knowledgeable when I review an article, giving the authors a hard time. It's part of the game - you do it a little, and you get it a little. But I usually manage to not fall for it. What I think I have managed to stay clear of, though, is to directly harass people I have some power on - people I am mentoring, for instance. I simply think it's immoral and stupid, and yet I see it as a common thing around me.
Over the years, I have witnessed at least half a dozen cases of graduate students allegedly underperforming, or dropping temporarily out. In my assessment, they were all worthy of their status and of the Ph.D. that they eventually obtained; only, they found a harder environment where they could not function as well as they could have. And the culprit, I am sorry to say, was usually their advisor.
Graduate students have a tough life. They have a tight schedule, a heavy load of work on their shoulders, exams, a curriculum to improve, and a thesis to write; not to mention an insecure economical position, and maybe a family to start. When you put on top of that the sometimes difficult relationship with their advisor - made difficult _always_ by the advisor, make no mistake - it is not uncommon to see them drop out, or drift away. It is simply too much pressure to withstand.
So, if you are in academia and you have advisory duties, please consider: you were a graduate student once, and you must remember what it was like. Your life depended on appreciation of your work, on an occasional praise, on encouragement, and you could easily be knocked out by some sarcastic remark about some occasional deficiency. It worked out well for you, didn't it? In the end it must have. So please, make it easier to your students!