Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Working with the Enemy

My excellent (if a bit difficult) grad student, who is very capable and talented, will graduate this spring/summer and is looking for a postdoc. There are several groups where I would like him to go, but they seem to be struggling with funds and cannot take on a postdoc, or might possibly in the near future but don't know just yet (waiting for some funds to come through).

The one place that is loaded with money is a university with several faculty in my area. They are extremely well connected and extremely well funded. I wish my academic ancestors were as well connected, but alas, no such luck.

Of these people, one is my ArchNemesis (A. N). He has been a dick to me ever since I was a graduate student; whether it was the issues he had with my PhD advisor, or A. N.'s considerable inner douchiness, or my own charming personality (the same one that has been winning me all those vitriolic comments on my blog) -- we will never know. A. N. has been nothing short of dismissive and unpleasant whenever our paths cross. A collaborator of mine who knows him well says that's because he's insecure and intimidated, but if that's the case then he's truly pathetic because he's 10 years my senior, commands a huge army of underlings, and is very well connected with industry and funding agencies, so I should not be rousing any insecurities in him. But, whatever. I am awesome; maybe he is intimidated. Or more likely he's just a dick.

Anyway, at this point I know the guy just hates me and since he's not going anywhere and is better positioned than I am, all I can do it to try to avoid him and minimize his negative influence on my career. I am sure he shoots my proposals down on panels, so I just keep trying (he cannot be on every single panel, can he?) I don't think he gets my papers to review often, we do sufficiently different things, but I have no doubt he would shoot me down whenever given a chance. I went out of my way to ensure he was not solicited for letters for my tenure case.

Perhaps the most annoying thing is not that the guy dislikes me, but that I didn't do anything really to deserve his attitude. I mean, I kinda wish to have had the option to screw him over before he went on to hate me, but we all know that's not how things work...

Anyway, back to the story. My supersmart student has sent out feelers and, yes, you guessed it, the ArchNemesis has  funding and is -- wait for it -- really interested in the work the student has been doing (which is btw a continuation of my work from when I was a student, and which A.N. has been shitting on every chance he gets). The student asked for my opinion (it's no secret that I don't care for this guy) about going there. He was invited for an interview (A.N. was surprisingly upbeat and welcoming in his email to the student.)

One thing is that I really don't want to give A. N. is the benefit of the years of my work on a difficult project, the one project he has been so dismissive about, but in which he is now very interested. Blech -- the prospect of us being collaborators makes my skin cringe. Or worse yet -- the prospect of him just taking over my student's work and putting like 10 people on it and totally obliterating any continuing effort I have on the topic? Now that really makes me feel sick.

But, I took a big breath and put on my Big Girl Pants and my Advisor Hat (yes, they match) and I told my student that, ideally, he should form his own opinions and own relationships with people in the community, and try not to be prejudiced by what his elders (such as me) tell him of certain people. I told him as objectively as I could what I thought of A. N. (what A.N.'s  professional strengths and weaknesses are) but that A. N.'s university has lots of resources, several excellent faculty and a number of postdocs and research scientists from whom the student can learn a lot, and last but not least -- that A.N. and his colleagues have connections that will be a tremendous help with subsequent job placement. If A. N. was not going to discriminate against my student because he hates me, I certainly should not prevent the student from a potentially beneficial placement.

So what do you think, blogosphere?
Can archnemeses stop being so by exchanging a student and turn into happy collaborators? Can there ever be trust after years of mistrust?
Will my student be happy working with the advisor's enemy? Would you advise the student differently -- to stay away from A. N., and if so, why?


Ewan said...

If things are this horrendous, I would explicitly note to my students the possibility - probability? - that A.N. may be seeking to further exact pain on you via abuse of said student.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

What you should be telling your grad student is that one of the major purposes of post-doctoral training is to expand your scientific expertise beyond what you worked on as a grad student, and thus that she would be ill-advised to take a post-doc position where the expectation would be to work on a continuation of grad student work. Your student is at risk of becoming a one-trick pony, which will have an adverse effect on future career trajectory.

Yael said...

Exactly what CPP said.

1. Don't know about NSF, but NIH F32s expect some kind of change which will have training potential (ie not doing the same thing). My advisor was very happy that I decided to switch model systems.

2. As a postdoc, I wouldn't even think about working for grad advisor's competitors or collaborators, because of a possibility that I might end up working on the same things as my PhD work/continually be exposed to the same ideas from that field even if I am working on a different project.

Crystal Voodoo said...

My grad lab had A.N. who would actively burn papers and grants at every opportunity. He also happened to be the central coordinating hub in the field on an international scale (literally earning 2-3 pubs a month by association alone).

And one day my PI gets an email. Sure enough he discovered that his collaborator who performed analogous experiments to our own was publishing crap and as a result burned through a lot of grant money based on bad info. He decided to suck up 25 years of bad blood and reach out. It is now a very profitable relationship. Occasionally even the oldest antagonistic relationships can be healed.

It may be worth getting a better read on his motives.