Tuesday, February 05, 2008

An illusionary sense of superiority

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 na├»ve 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)


Soultan of Swing said...

The pompous politician in question was Rahul Bajaj.
Speaking of pompous IIT-ians, an distant uncle (whom I was meeting for the first time at a family wedding about 6-7 years ago) who went to IIT, rolled his eyes in disbelief (not entirely undeserved!) when he heard that I was at ACTech, quipping that "if you are an engineering graduate from any other place than IIT, you're no better than a sweeper"! Okay, the guy has his own jetplane (so an unconfirmed rumor/urban legend has it), but a little more humility would be much appreciated. His FIL watched the exchange and cringed in embarrassment.

Anonymous said...

came here via desipundit ... i am an iitian and must tell you that some of us are arrogant to an extent. but there are many of us who hate that. its not just sometimes about being in iit, inside iit, its also about the branch you are in ... couple of years back, there are was "prelim's" question paper set for short listing people into the finals for event names 'how things work'. the paper had a lousy question taken straight from the slides of one of mech's courses (it was a mech. dept. tech. festival named 'mechanica') .... i jokingly 'challenged' an electrical dept friend of mine to answer that.. he was like "how can a mech student challenge an elec student??"

right after first semester, some of us were talking about a few students and one of friends said, "i dont know them that well", other friend replied, "all you need to know is their cgpa and you will know everything about them"

i am sure every college (iit or otherwise) have such students. just that iit is highlighted by the media

Anonymous said...

I've had a long-term association with an IIT which is full of obstinate snobs. Incidentally, before I read this post, I had a similar discussion with another IITian friend of mine (who has been student at 3 IITs). Our conclusion --primarily in context of the job scenario-- was that an average IIT student thinks that it is his/her right and the duty of a prospective employer to hire him/her just because (s)he managed to get into an IIT.

But that is not the case just with IITs. I have come across some Stephanians and other "top" Delhi University college students who think on the same lines and are uptight obnoxious pricks towards their peers.

Sunil said...

Bala....yes indeed, it was Bajaj!

Shankin, lifemath....I don't want this to become some kind of IIT bashing, that wasn't the purpose of the post at all (and I hope that came across in the post itself). But this silly idea of superiority or entitlement because of where you went to study sometimes becomes too tiresome, doesn't it?

Anita said...

nice post. Can't understand how ppl get to be older without realising that superiority is not about brand names. really!

Wavefunction said...

Quite true. Not to nitpick or be a heckler, but the dictionary does not have a word named illusionary. Only illusory and illusional (which I was not aware of). Sorry :)

Soultan of Swing said...

The Bajaj comment was undoubtedly amusing, considering it came across as a "tight slap" (anyone remember the "one tight slap" series channel v/mtv had in the late 90s) for Mr. Thapar/"Thappad". But again, it was snooty - from both sides, though Thapar was on the backfoot.
Coming from a Cathedralite, and considering how much Campionites and Cathedralites love being in each others' faces (possibly like the FAPS-BC rivalry in B'lore?), it got quite a bit of publicity with us Campionites. All said and done, it was one of the nastiest interviews I've seen.

Anonymous said...

that was a low blow against IITians....ultimately everyone is judged on his or her capabilities.....

let us face it though, the educational institution that one comes from does influence the decisions of employers or graduate schools....as do papers that you have published and the patents that you have filed and the presentations that your made and a host of other things......

Sunil said...

Ashutosh....not to nitpick, but perhaps you looked at some incomplete dictionary.

Try this one http://www.thefreedictionary.com/illusionary
Illusion (noun), illusionary/illusional (adj), illusionless (adj)

Bala....amusing indeed. I won't comment on school rivalries....even though that is mostly in good humor (ok....i'll succumb and say FAPS-BC isn't even a rivalry. FAPS doesn't exist in our minds :-). Joseph's, perhaps).

Anon......like i said earlier, i wasn't bashing IITians, and the post should hopefully illustrate that. I was just talking about some incidents I've been witness to, and you can ask yourself if you've been in such situations, and perhaps how your react to them.

Wavefunction said...

Hmmm...strange. My Mac Webster does not mention "illusionary". This is turning out to be an interesting exercise in itself!

CK said...

ooooooooo....no mention of IIMs ???? infact some IITians are better than other IITians only because they got into IIM! :)

and if you really observe students from IIM A B C , will give more credence to the fact thats its IIM A B C and students from other IIMs will give more credence to the IIM tag!

Wavefunction said...

Also, one of the problems is that people outside your field often don't know about your field. So you may be working in a medium sized decent university albeit with someone who is a very big name, who might not be known at all to someone from MIT simply because it's not his field. And yet he would automatically assume that you are not as good he is.

Sunil said...

sc......heh. We'll try not to go there.

Ashutosh....yes, perhaps. But i'd like to continue to dream of an ideal world where people are evaluated on their achievements.

LogicGirl said...

It's a clique thing. The admission rate to these prestigious top schools are so small that once you're in, you tend to feel like you've made it! School oficials and professors also tend to bolster students prestige. I am ivy-league educated, yet I know that there are tons out there who are smarter than me. For some of us, having made it in is all we can crow about. How else can we top what we did?! Heh.

Anonymous said...

Nice stories but it's Johns Hopkins, no apostrophe. Yeah, the guy was actually named Johns Hopkins with an s. :)

Sunil said...

yup...it is a clique thing logicgirl. But I think there's a fine line between "I think I'm awesome because I'm from abc" and "you suck because you went to xyz", don't you think? I've been pretty guilty of the clique thing myself though, and am quite ashamed of it now.

Anon...yes you're right. My bad. Corrected.