In a utopian world science would be perfectly egalitarian, and only the quality of the science itself would matter. But of course, human nature takes its toll on most things, and our inherent tendency to proclaim or feel superiority on the silliest of premises sometimes takes over. So, just like in almost every other profession, pedigree is (unfortunately) awarded what I think is a very high premium. But sometimes some small minds with bloated egos take it one step too far.
A few little incidents I witnessed reminded me of an interview of an extremely pompous Indian politician (I cannot remember his name) by the prominent (and pompous) Indian television commentator Karan Thapar which I happened to see (a year or so ago). I don’t remember the exact context where this topic came about, but the politician somewhere in the interview declared that he was “much better” than Thapar. Thapar, incredulous that anyone could conceivably be better than him, asked “how so”? The politician asked Thapar where he had been educated, and Thapar, with the glint of old boy pride in his eyes, said he’d studied in Doon school followed by degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Pompous politician whose name I can’t remember says “Aha! I am better” and then says he studied at “some other prestigious school” followed by degrees from Harvard and Wharton or some such, and therefore he was better than Thapar.
That was just about the silliest argument I had ever heard.
But coming back to my little world of science, it seems there isn’t a significant shortage of such similarly bloated egos either. Here are some select stories:
A very bright graduate student friend of mine told me this incident. Some years ago, while interviewing for graduate school, she had interviewed at some of the top schools in the US. For various reasons important to her, she turned down some big name schools like Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, Johns Hopkins and a few others to decide to come here for her PhD. That was her choice. A year or so ago, she runs into another student who is now in Hopkins at some meeting. Now this student had interviewed in Hopkins at the same time as my friend, and they remembered each other. So their conversation naturally goes towards what they are doing. That girl asks my friend where she decided to go for her PhD and my friend tells her that she’s in Texas.
The other girl, in all sincerity, says “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you didn’t get into Hopkins”.
Friend rolls eyes in astonishment and walks away.
(I wonder how much this story would hurt some of the big egos here in Dallas, since after all, by some measures, this place ranks as the “number 1 research institution in the US” in some disciplines. These egos aren’t exclusive to “big name schools” in the east coast, though there seems to be a little bit more out there).
If you’ve decided that it was just an immature graduate student with some air of superiority, here’s a good story from faculty.
Another friend was doing a PhD in a small but respected school in the US. Her own graduate school efforts, by all measures, were exceptional. Most students in big name institutes don’t have the quality of publications my friend managed in a small school. While interviewing for postdocs, my friend also wrote to some researcher Y in a very big name institute on the North East coast (Yale). X was still in grad school at the time. Anyway, Y decides to call my friend up at some 8 am in the morning (anyone with brains would know that 8 am is a terrible time to call a grad student), on friend’s cell phone. Naturally there is no response. So, bloated ego Y decides to call my friend’s PhD advisor Z up to converse. Z at first politely talks to Y, and then Y starts asking Z if Z even knew whether my friend ever came to the lab, what kind of student my friend was, whether my friend was the least bit interested in research and so on. Z somehow managed to speak politely, and then Y goes on to question Z’s research credentials. Y goes on and says something about how people in “small schools” don’t know what research is all about, and then offers to fly down my friend for an interview just so that my friend can “visit Yale, and see how real research is done at a real research institute”.
Luckily that was the last straw for Z, who (still) politely but firmly put Y in her place, and told Y to take a hike, because there was just about no way my friend would ever do a postdoc with Y anymore, or bother to “visit” Yale.
There are many more such stories of course. In my more naïve past I might have been guilty of one or two such moments of snootiness myself (and I am thoroughly ashamed of those moments now). More recently, I’ve been at scientific meetings, where some people from “big name institutes” only talk to others from what they deem to be suitably equivalent institutes. The silliness often permeates to the job market as well, and it can be easier for an absolutely incompetent idiot from Harvard to find a job than it is for a very talented student from a small Midwestern institute (ahem…..Bush went to Yale and then Harvard). And a person might retain this attitude for years or even decades after passing out of the “famous institute”.
I know a few IITans read this blog. No offense buddies, but perhaps its time to get over it.
(update: it wasn't a pompous politician in that interview with Thapar. It was pompous businessman Rahul Bajaj. Thanks bala)