• August 28, 2015

A Scientist's Guide to Academic Etiquette

Science Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Enlarge Image
close Science Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

For some reason, academics are not particularly famous for having well-developed social skills, although I don't think we are any more or less socially adept than nonacademics. The shy, awkward professor is a stereotype, although one can, from time to time, see how it might have come about.

Even so, academics can be quite aggressive, especially when it comes to research. Faculty positions and grants are difficult to obtain, we are rewarded for publishing a lot, and our universities seem quite pleased when our work generates public attention (of the positive sort). All of those factors combine to produce a culture that rewards highly assertive faculty members.

The awkwardness and occasional hostility that may arise among scholars in competitive fields gets even more complicated when members of an underrepresented group (such as women in the physical sciences, engineering, and math) are added to the mix. You end up with a rather long list of situations in which people might not behave as well as they could.

In the years that I have been blogging, I have written about some of the situations in which we academics are impolite to each other, and offered suggestions for how we might get along better. I started numbering the examples, at first with randomly assigned, absurdly high numbers, as if they were items in a long nonexistent document called "FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette." Eventually I collected all of those scenarios together and gave them real numbers. I hereby share my existing list, with the addition of some new items.

A cursory glance shows that this is by no means a comprehensive list of all the things one might want or need to know to navigate the academic world. Furthermore, some of these tips are more useful than others, some are more serious than others, and more than a few focus on the extremes of academic behavior. All of them are based on actual experiences. On to the list:

1. For interviewees: During your campus interview, don't give different, completely inconsistent answers to different people depending on your perception of their position in the department or university hierarchy. If you are aggressive with female assistant professors ("I am not interested in teaching. I intend to hire five postdocs and focus on research. So, how many grants do you have?"), but unctuous with the senior male professors ("Teaching is a major priority for me, and I plan to involve students in my research."), that discrepancy might be discovered. We do talk about you after you're gone. And since this example (like the others) is based on a true story, I can report that such behavior may not be viewed favorably.

2. For interviewees: If, for some reason, you absolutely must bring your significant other to an interview, including to social events with members of the hiring committee, don't smooch, call each other cute nicknames, and/or feed each other during the dinner. The hiring committee may well be comprised of people with families and interests outside work, but they may nevertheless be disturbed by that behavior.

3. For faculty interviewers: Don't ask illegal and unethical questions. If you don't know what is permissible, find out in advance.

4. For faculty interviewers: Imagine that the person you are interviewing might one day be your colleague. Don't alienate the candidate from the start. Be polite and professional, and don't look at your watch every few minutes during the conversation.

5. For male faculty interviewers: Don't say to a female candidate for a faculty position: "I don't know what we are supposed to talk about. I can tell you that my wife likes living here. She likes the schools, she has a nice garden, and the humidity makes her hair curly." Don't say anything that strongly suggests that you don't know how to have a professional conversation with a woman.

6. For department chairs: Don't start your meeting with a candidate by listing the previous faculty members who have been denied tenure.

7. For department or search-committee chairs: When you have made a decision, let the unsuccessful candidates know the outcome. Don't assume they will guess the outcome if they don't hear any news from you.

8. For applicants: After determining that someone is willing to write a letter of reference for you, provide the necessary information in an organized way—well in advance of the deadline.

9. For applicants: If someone writes a letter of reference for you, let them know the outcome of your applications, or at least ask if they want to be informed.

10. For students and postdocs: If you are paid a salary, you should do the work.

11. For students visiting professors, even during office hours: If you are going to ask a professor a question and you need to refer to your notes or a book, have them within easy reach, with the relevant pages marked. Don't spend the first few minutes searching through your backpack and your giant folders covered with skull doodles only to realize that you left the desired item at home and have no idea what your question was, so instead you just ask the professor if you missed anything important in the class session you skipped because you overslept.

12. For students visiting professors, even outside of office hours: If the professor is dining al desco, an activity typically done to save time on a busy day, don't ask, "Are you busy?" The answer is yes. Ask instead, "Do you have a few minutes to talk, or should I come back at a better time?"

13. For students: Don't call male faculty members "Professor" or "Dr.," and then call female professors by their first names—unless you know that the female professor wants to be called by her first name.

14. For everyone: Run a spell checker before giving someone a manuscript or other document to read.

15. For authors: Before submitting anything for review, notify all of the co-authors and give them a chance to comment on the manuscript that bears their names. This is an ethics issue, not an etiquette matter.

16. For co-authors: If you are a co-author, you should respond in a timely way to requests for comments, or at least provide some communication to work out a reasonable time frame within which you can provide input.

17. For co-authors: Don't force people to add your name to papers if your contributions were minimal to nonexistent.

18. For readers: Don't assume that a paper is written by a man and then express great surprise when you meet the female author. Comments such as, "I thought you must be a man because you published a lot of interesting papers" will not be viewed as compliments by some women.

19. For reviewers: When writing a review, even if you think the authors are wrong or have incorrectly and inadequately cited your work, or you don't like their data or their font or their interpretations or the way that they say that your work is flawed, write your criticisms in a constructive and professional way.

20. For researchers: Don't steal ideas. Get your own ideas, or collaborate.

21. For people introducing a speaker: Before the talk, ask speakers if they have a preference about what is said during their introduction. Some people won't, but some may have preferences about what to mention (dates, places, awards, crimes).

22. For speakers: If you are scheduled to give a talk of a certain length, don't speak for significantly more than that amount of time.

23. For everyone: Thank people who help you, even if it is their job to do so, or you think it is their job to do so. There is a chance that you may be misinformed.

24. For advisers: Don't assume that a student or postdoc lacks ambition just because they don't want to be a professor at a big research university.

25. For advisers: Don't boast about firing graduate students. It is unseemly. You don't have to keep it a secret, but don't use those incidents to establish your hard-core credentials.

26. For professors: If you don't like another professor, don't take your dislike out on their students and postdocs.

27. For anyone who attends faculty meetings: Don't make faculty meetings last longer than necessary unless you have something really important to say.

28. For everyone, especially students: Don't ask someone if they are a "real" professor.

29. For everyone who attends conferences: If you see someone you want to talk to at a conference and that person is already in a conversation, try to join in, or ask politely if you can interrupt. Do not simply start talking as if the other person doesn't exist.

30. For everyone: Don't tell your adviser, colleagues, or students what your therapist says about them.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column. Her blog is http://science-professor.blogspot.com.


1. willardhall - November 11, 2009 at 08:54 am

"14. For everyone: Run a spell checker before giving someone a manuscript or other document to read."

WOW, could that bar get any lower?

2. mrmars - November 11, 2009 at 09:05 am

Good job, but why is the list so short? A book could be written about this - maybe in yearly installments.

3. alexking - November 11, 2009 at 09:17 am

For #22, the admonishment should also apply to talking for significantly LESS time than scheduled, even though there is generally more forgiveness for erring in that direction. It leaves a very bad impression when an invited speaker finishes after 30 minutes of an expected 1 hour talk, and it implies a lack of respect for the audience.

4. stalnaker - November 11, 2009 at 10:29 am

I cannot support #7 enough. I think it's downright rude to leave your applicants out in the cold, wondering what happened. Sure, we'll eventually move on, but there's a great deal of stress and postponed planning that results from not knowing even a negative outcome. Not once have I gotten a rejection. Twice, I have been in the final three and asked the committee chair for a brief summary of my errors in order to better myself for future interviews (a fairly common practice outside the academic world). I wasn't just denied (which would've been fine), I was completely ignored on both occasions.

5. mbelvadi - November 11, 2009 at 10:36 am

I'm not sure what to make of #20. If you don't have any ideas, try to mooch on other people who do (aka seek collaboration)? How about, if you don't have any ideas of your own, get out of higher ed!

6. eeels - November 11, 2009 at 12:12 pm

#31. For session chairs at conferences: Don't respond to the first 20-minute paper with a 20-minute ramble about the time you blah blah blah with Prof. Namedrop in Miscellaneous European City 20 years ago and then tell the last person on your panel to hurry up with her paper because the next group is going to need the room, and oh by the way there won't be time for questions.

7. tarique_h - November 11, 2009 at 01:57 pm

#32. For presenters at conferences: Please respect the time limits. I have seen presenters "rob" time away from other presenters because they have 200 power point slides and complicated models.

8. akprof - November 11, 2009 at 01:58 pm

And as a corollary to # 5, if you happen to be interviewing a potential nursing faculty member, don't confidently inform him or her that you understand nurses because you used to date one - as a male interviewer once informed me! (I did get the job and the interviewer and I eventually developed mutual respect and an effective working relationship).

9. mycobiochick - November 11, 2009 at 01:59 pm

Eeels- I love the sarcasm - it brightened my day.

10. optimisticynic - November 11, 2009 at 02:56 pm

#33 When interacting with a librarian, particularly in front of a class, be sure to use the appropriate title. A librarian who holds a PhD will remember that you repeatedly addressed her as "Ms." when she addressed you correctly as "Dr." She will not remember this experience fondly, and won't be particularly thrilled to offer you research help later. Remember that many librarians have more formal education and professional experience than you do.

11. java_snob - November 11, 2009 at 02:57 pm

What about: Always, always make sure that once you choose an object of critique that your critique is valid to the context and point of the argument -- and you don't misspell the word "idiot".

12. new_theologian - November 11, 2009 at 03:41 pm

I can't help noticing how many comments are specific to how male (or presumably male?) persons should regard the professional competencies of females in academia. Is this still really a big problem, or just a perceived one? I'm not aware of doing any of these things, or of seeing anyone do these things. But if it is a problem that I just don't happen to notice, wouldn't similar belittlement of male academicians be just as tasteless?

13. minnesotan - November 11, 2009 at 04:34 pm

new_theo: female professors rarely know (or care) about the way male academics are mistreated by female academics. Talking about it is neither trendy nor politically correct.

14. poly4 - November 11, 2009 at 05:00 pm

minnesotan:perhaps the situations are less common, or less distressing, or perhaps the men in question brush it off or don't talk about it, but I doubt that it's a matter of trendiness or political correctness. Belittlement of ANYONE is tasteless.

15. vixenvena - November 11, 2009 at 05:01 pm

How about #31. Don't write stupid lists of obvious mistakes as though you're an editor of Glamour or Cosmo and then pretend to be someone who can be taken seriously. If I wanted to read crap like this, I'm going to the supermarket to pick up a magazine with "Ten ways to please my lover" plastered all over the front.

Chronicle, you're supposed to be a worthwhile academic source. You can do better than this crap.

16. eeels - November 11, 2009 at 10:01 pm

mycobiochick - What I describe in my #31 actually happened to me... and of course, it was by far the best work I ever did.

optimisticynic - Right on!

17. tridaddy - November 12, 2009 at 08:34 am

Crap or not, we all need to be reminded of the importance of how we should relate and treat one another. I suppose a "scholarly" research article would have pleased vixenvena more. Get a life!

18. optimisticynic - November 12, 2009 at 09:50 am

Minnesotan and New Theologian, women's belittlement of male scholars must be rampant, as we can so clearly see by women's dominance of academia. Yeah, that's a huge problem.

19. diceratops - November 12, 2009 at 09:55 am

Suggestion for #34: Unless you're in a department that focuses on one or the other, not everyone wants to hear about your opinion on politics and/or religion. Even folks who agree with you.

20. novain - November 12, 2009 at 11:12 am

When you are presenting, please arrive ahead of time to make sure all AV equipment and your slides work; and start and end your presentation on time.

21. ampayne - November 12, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I am very glad that a scientist at a research university indluded #24 of this list. After all, if it were the sole goal of all of us in science to follow only a research path, where would graduate students for labs come from, and who would prepare them in undergrad for the rigors of graduate school?

22. cathybwilcox - November 12, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Is it just me, or is this very funny? not to say that it's not all true.....

23. adjunctagain - November 13, 2009 at 02:38 pm

Definite rule of etiquette: If you are a top-level administrator, NEVER tell your direct report that you are not promoting her because you are hiring someone who is "10 years younger than you but looks even younger than THAT." AND, if you do such a thing, at least make sure you can answer the question, "what are her credentials?" Saying, "oh, it's something in an area like yours, she'll tell you for sure" is NOT appropriate!

24. dee615 - November 14, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Corollary #2 to comment #5: Don't exclude minority women from professional dialogue, only to suddenly turn the focus on them with gratuitous, patronizing and downright imbecilic comments about, for example, ethnic cooking.

[This really happened to me when I was a member of a recent Engineering search committee. Let me reiterate that I was not the candidate.]

25. drpopejoy - November 15, 2009 at 12:38 pm

In reference to item #22 about speakers at a conference; I am convinced that the panel moderator or chair is key to keeping everyone on time. I am often called upon to be a panel moderator at conferences and I always meet with or email the speakers ahead of time with my procedures and expectations. I introduce them as they wish to be introduced, but more importantly, I tell them in advance that I am firm on time--I even use index cards with five minute warnings, three minute, two minute, one minute; and then rarely, but sometimes, I have to get up and interrupt their presentation to make sure that equal time is available to the next speaker. Even if a speaker is not good about their own timekeeping, that is my job and I ensure that everyone has equal time based on the total time alloted to the panel and a timed Q&A session at the end. I think moderators that are in control of the panel are truly respected by speakers and audience alike. In general though, these 30 points of good manners are worth reviewing from time to time since we may forget from time to time what is good behavior.

26. cdoug - November 16, 2009 at 12:16 am

Thanks for the lesson on common scene!!!!!!!

27. nnyland - November 16, 2009 at 04:01 pm

This actually happened, as told to me by a friend interviewing for a philosophy position: Interviewers, if you are interviewing at a conference, and have to interview in your hotel room, and your spouse has come along with you to the conference, please make sure that he or she has gotten out of bed before you bring the interviewee to your hotel room.

Better advice might be: even at a conference, don't interview in your hotel room.

28. rnaseekerjenny - November 17, 2009 at 03:36 am

All I could do is yell "Yes" when I saw #13. I also often get "Ms." when I know the same student
uses "Dr." for male faculty. I'm not quite sure what to make of e-mails from foreign students seeking admission to graduate school that start out "Dear Mr. Jennifer ...".

29. bioclocks - November 18, 2009 at 08:58 am

Despite the efforts of human resources offices, illegal questions (#3) still get asked (or did as of 10 years ago). At a restaurant on my night of arrival, faculty pelted me with multiple illegal questions. I anxious to get a job, so I answered as politely as I could, rather than saying the questions were not allowed. Luckily, I did not get the job. The college was a very odd place in multiple respects.

30. scholarr - November 19, 2009 at 11:45 am

You forgot to add: If you are an attractive female professor and a male colleague does not stare at you and acknowledge that you are a gift from god to our department, it means he probably doesn't have any respect for your intellectual work product or perhaps he's just an athiest.

31. lotsoquestions - November 27, 2009 at 04:09 pm

When talking to a male academic in your field, do not talk shop and then apologize to the woman he's with for "using lots of abbreviations that you probably don't understand and boring you." Actually, THIS female academic is in the same field -- she just works at a different university, you arrogant person. She and her colleagues at THAT university got a good chuckle out of your bizarre and uninformed behavior. You will henceforth be known as "that guy."

32. thedoor - January 25, 2010 at 05:55 pm


33. ceriness - February 01, 2010 at 09:55 am

I cannot say enough how important #3 and #7 are. As an applicant in 2010, I'm flabbergasted by the number of questions I've gotten about my religious beliefs. And #7 - not telling a candidate she has not been selected - seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I feel lucky if I get rejected in writing months after the short lists have been drawn up, and on one memorable occasion when I was a finalist, the committee chair never so much as emailed me, no letter was sent, and I was put in a position where I had to call the college to confirm my tacit rejection. It was humiliating after all the effort I'd put into the presentations and interviews there, and I'm still livid. On the other hand, I have fond feelings for those schools who told me early, clearly, and compassionately that they'd chosen someone else, and consider the people I met there as valuable contacts, job or no job.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.