We look forward to eating you

Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo.

When interview candidates come to visit, just telling the truth sometimes feels like whistle-blowing.

Whistle-blowing – drawing attention to unlawful or immoral conduct by a person or organisation – performs a vital and important role in the regulation and functioning of democratic processes. By raising an alarm, a person from within an organisation anonymously notifies a person or persons outside that organisation of putative misdeeds. It is never a decision that’s made easily or lightly however – the ongoing impeachment hearings in the States show quite how aggressively contemporary institutions can respond to allegations of malpractice. 

There are also occasions when simply telling the truth to an out-group member, even in the absence of any actual (or proven) criminal or immoral behaviour, feels much the same as whistle-blowing. In scientific circles, one of the commonest instances comes when interview candidates visit a laboratory they’ve applied to.

There’s a tendency in such situations to be relentlessly positive. The candidate is generally a fresh, impressionable, and interested outsider with at least a semi-serious desire to join the group. A captive audience. Somebody who can be regaled with the full breadth and depth of ongoing work, both actual and projected. They’re a fan. A wannabe.

But even within the assumed privacy of a one-on-one conversation, the strength of the in-group dynamic – with its unavoidable us/them perspective – still holds. An awkward or direct question from the candidate (“Do you feel supported?”) is more likely to be met with an instinctively defensive response rather than a measured one. Why? Because there’s a tacit understanding that an interview situation is also an exercise in propaganda, and admitting to feeling unhappy, neglected, and frustrated is tantamount to a betrayal, to letting the side down.

And so, as with Facebook profiles, what the candidate tends to be presented with is a manufactured version of reality. A smiling mask. The group as it might be, as it is on its best days, as it should be.

But it might not often be like that. In fact, at that moment in time, it may be very different. At worst, the smiling mask may bear no more resemblance to the group’s inner workings than Dorian Grey did to his scabrous portrait.

Groups are dynamic, in terms of their membership and their morale, and the morale will – as part of the normal cycle of things – not always be high. Sometimes it can be low, and sometimes, unfortunately, it can stay low for a long time. Interview propaganda will do its best to make the group appear like Botticelli’s Venus, beckoning the candidate to a seashell world of excitement and stimulation…but there’s times when that same exercise may more closely resemble a foul mud-encrusted terrapin luring young fish with its wiggling pink tongue. 

In such circumstances, it is vital that group members speak out to prospective candidates to warn them that all is not well. No group is happy all the time, but there’s a duty to tell (potentially) incoming people if morale is at a low ebb, and the group is in a slump. 

That warning doesn’t mean the candidate won’t join, but any candidate who joins a group should always do so with their eyes open. People are always free to ignore or not act on advice they’re given, and they may even flourish in exactly the environment that is currently out of alignment for the other group members. It’s all part of the complex and mutable habitat that constitutes a research group. 

Sometimes bringing in that one new person can shift the group into a happier state, and sometimes a single departure – when a group is afflicted by a person with a dominant negative personality – can have the same effect. Often the cloud simply blows over by itself. The critical thing though is that no-one should ever join a lab under a misapprehension.

Even if you’re the only one currently having problems, that’s still relevant – not all personality types are the same, and if the candidate is more like you than the other current group members, then it’s your experience that’s likely to be most informative. Absolutely the worst thing you can do is pretend that all is well when it’s not. A new arrival will ultimately find out, and they may not forgive you for the deception. 

The ghastly image of Goya’s Saturn is emblematic of the worst kinds of groups, the ones driven almost to madness by the continual consumption of their own young. They do exist, and sometimes openly. High dropout rates, high stress levels, and low morale can be extended, chronically, so long as research publications sustain the group’s reputation for doing good work and thereby guarantee a supply of fresh meat. With a growing awareness of the mental health toll imposed by the skewed priorities of modern research, you do not want to be complicit in bringing someone into a madhouse, and if you find yourself in a saturnine group of this type, it’s a duty – a difficult and unwelcome one, but a duty nonetheless – to speak out. 

(On the flip side, if you yourself are the candidate, be on the lookout for warning signs of a reigning Saturn. Make sure you get to talk to all members of the group, one-on-one, when you interview. Ask if they feel happy and supported. Be on the lookout for people who seem isolated, or reluctant to talk about the atmosphere in the group. Be aware too that even a supportive group leader, if sufficiently displaced from the day to day activity of the group through absenteeism, may inadvertently foster the development of a jungle atmosphere. For more tips on finding a lab, see one of our “How to…” guides – e.g. HERE). 

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