In academia, we have a variety of adept psychological bullies. In this two-part series, I will focus on the "academic bully". The best way to describe this syndrome is through example, so I am using an interaction described by FSP on her blog:
When first introduced to a grad student whose research was in a field closely related to mine, the student said "I've never heard of you." Then, in case this comment was a bit too subtle for me, he added "You must not publish very much".
This is what I would call a text-book example of the "insulting academic bully" syndrome. This is not to be confused with aggressive scientific questioning, though there is a variant of the academic bully syndrome that can masquerade as valid scientific questioning: the "scientific academic bully". For a good example of this you should read acmegirl's description of interacting with a scientific academic bully at her poster presentation. It's classic.
Regardless of the variant, the Academic Bully is someone who says aggressive, bullying things that under normal rules of social engagement would not be acceptable to say and then uses those same rules of conduct to hamstring the other person. It's similar to the boyfriend who breaks up with his girlfriend in a restaurant to avoid a "scene" - they manipulate a social interaction so that they can do something unpleasant AND the other person feels they cannot respond because they might look bad. However, unlike the boyfriend who dumps you and is gone, once an academic bully realizes you will play by social norms, they are a bit like the Energizer Bunny - they just keep going.
How do I know? I had a friend who was an Academic Bully and he told me this was the case. I know, it sounds like "friend" and "Academic Bully", seem like they should not be in the same sentence unless there's a "not" in there, but he was an unusual academic bully (I've met lots of them, so I know of what I speak). I think he was conducting a social experiment - how far can you push someone before they finally abandon the constraint of accepted social conduct? If you stood up to him he was your loyal friend for life...if not, well...He once told me that he continued tormenting a person in our lab because he (the victim) would never just tell him (the Academic Bully) off no matter how out of line he (the Academic Bully) was. He told me all this after I just couldn't take him any more and told him he was being a tool and if he didn't shut up I would kill him, discard his corpse in a dumpster and tell his wife he ran off with an undergrad cheerleader....details of my response have been altered to protect my identity, but it shockingly wasn't that far off. We were great friends after that.
My friend was what I would call a "benign" Academic Bully (the word benign is used here not to denote approval, but in the more medical sense, since you often still have benign growths removed). His bullying had nothing to do with gender or ethnicity, was focused on the "older" members of the lab who he thought should be able to defend themselves (ie. other postdocs and senior grad students), and was confined to scientific issues. "Cancerous" Academic Bullies also exist. They only exhibit symptoms towards women and/or minorities and the intent is to undermine the victim's self-esteem and make them doubt their own worthiness, intelligence, and/or accomplishments. I have run into numerous examples of both during my career. For those of you who follow Adventures in Ethics and Science, these syndromes are analogous to the spherical vs asymmetrical bastards concept.
So, having discussed the definition and symptoms of the academic bully, you think you have diagnosed your bully and wish to apply some remedy to their illness. Perhaps you are hoping for some ointment, pill, or even electric shock therapy that will cure them once and for all. Unfortunately, if you are unlucky enough to know an Academic Bully, I am sad to say there is no cure for their condition. However, I have found that there are some treatment options that can help keep this person's symptoms in check. Hang in there, and tomorrow I will discuss treatment options and warnings about unexpected side effects.