On sharpening other people’s axes

Started a PhD program a few months ago. I’m surrounded by people with an ax to grind. Insecure, trying to find ways to look down on the people around them (especially regarding intellect). It’s also almost entirely men, and the toxic masculinity is palpable. Is there any way to influence these guys, make them see themselves and others differently? In other words, can I help people to grow the fuck up? Believe that they’re worth something and that the people around them are worth something too– even if they can’t see it right away?

Can you help people grow the fuck up? Yeah. Should you? Fuck no. You’re not their mommy, and you should never give away emotional labor for free, especially in a PhD program where you’re surrounded by narcissists with inferiority complexes who have neither status nor money.

You’re going to get eaten alive if you don’t recognize your environment for the shark tank that it is. These guys are not your friends. They are your colleagues and your competition. If you don’t believe me now, that’s fine, but I guarantee that one day you’re going to look back on this question and laugh at how naive you sounded.


35 thoughts on “On sharpening other people’s axes

  1. Sunny says:

    What Coke said. Making man-children grow up is the school’s job, not yours. Don’t wear yourself out on them, they haven’t asked you to and won’t thank you for it. Better to protect yourself, which has the bonus of modeling good boundaries and maturity in the process. Spend your energy forming friendships with non-assholes instead. You’ll change the world a lot more that way.

  2. Sansa420 says:

    Do you think it’s possible to cultivate meaningful relationships while simultaneously girding your loins?

    My academic environment is the same way.

    • Mono says:

      No. In grad school I cultivated meaningful relationships with very select, very few people. Everyone else was just someone to party with. Be selective and take care of yourself. It is a total shark tank, and those immature, narcissistic boys (or girls) could also be really really good at their jobs and fucking smart as shit (even in a social narcissistic kind of way). So just focus on being good at your job and keep your personal life out of the lab. That’s the best way to compete with them.

  3. Chris says:

    To PhD candidate: Submit work to be published, and do what you need to, to finish on time. That’s your whole job. If you’ll feel fulfilled trying to plant hydrangeas in cactus patches, then cool. Otherwise, maybe you need to give your precious free time to yoga or shopping or commenting on this site.

    This anecdote will explain your classmates’ thinking: A year ago – while not in school – I was trying to get a piece published in a law school’s journal (any law school’s journal) but in the end, they weren’t going to give the only real estate they own to me when they could, instead, publish something of their own.

    If someone is smart enough to network with you, awesome. Otherwise, publish and graduate. That’s the whole deal.

  4. Sharbell Hovanian says:

    This question was so annoying. Who is that arrogant/idealistic/has that much time to waste that they want to police classmates’ behavior? They are classmates, they barely rank as acquaintances. Who the hell cares?

    • Sunny says:

      Young women who have internalized the idea that it’s their job to nurture everyone, mostly. Our society’s really great at holding women responsible for mens’ behavior. Mix that with idealism about making the world a better place and a dollop of armchair psychology and you get this kind of attitude. It’s a common dynamic when women get stuck in abusive relationships. The challenge is growing through it and learning to apply that energy to places where it’s wanted and will produce good results rather than becoming bitter when you apply it in the wrong place and it backfires.

      • Sarah says:

        I’m dealing with this exact same thing actually, and you’re right about the bitterness. Currently in an environment where people should actually be concerned with helping other people but all they do is take short-sighted action to preserve their own careers, and not really care about the outcome (of course my perception is kind of clouded by the bitterness).

        Used to be more comfortable with that but… world events have changed my outlook, as I’m sure a lot of you can relate. Still haven’t entirely figured out where to apply my energies, or who to connect with.

    • flblbl says:

      there’s… there’s a huge difference between being too nice for your own good and not being an antisocial asshole, is all I’ll say

    • Mono says:

      Young people in PhDing in the humanities that have the naive idea that the values people in those departments espouse for the public/publication are also the same values held within the department.

      Hahahhahahah no.

      I suppose if she’s surrounded by men, this isn’t the case, tho.

      I suppose I’m being dramatic, but this question cut deep for me. Take care of yourself girl. If I hadn’t been so naive in grad school, I could have saved so much time, pain, and money in therapy bills.

      Also, don’t become like the narcissists, even to survive. I fell into the trap for a while. Hard not to in some ways.

    • Dina says:

      Grad school classmates arent just acquaintences.

      Legit everyone I know in academia, including myself but more importantly the typically older, whiter, male senior faculty that I interact with, count their grad school classmates among their closest and most important professional network.

      Cultivating those relationships is super important to future success within academia. I got lucky – my program was an overwhelmingly supportive community. Most people – most women especially aren’t so lucky.

      • Colby says:

        In the recent grad program I completed, there were some real douches who didn’t seem to understand that we were stronger together. For example, a professor tells us that we have to form into groups of 4. I see a guy I started the program with – a guy who said that one professor referred him to me to improve his writing – and ask if I can fall into his group, which had 2 women in it. He says it’s really their group, so I ask them. They have extreme reservations about working with a new person, so I say, “well, he knows me, and if you’d like I’ll send you some of my work. If it makes any difference, I work for Google.”

        We leave class with them saying they’ll be in touch. Long-story-less-long, the guy told them not to let me in, but they strung me along.

        For me, there was a delicious finish. This All-Star Team had no one who could speak in front of a small audience, so they presented as a group. One wore an outdoor leather coat, another looked like a homeless person, and the “um”s and “uh”s came at us like machine gun fire with some “like”s and “you know”s thrown in like grenades.

  5. Grouch says:

    The sooner you learn this lesson the better – don’t even think about them, go to work, do your job as best you can, don’t think about what other people are doing, and don’t get sucked into their weird drama. Any group of smart/talented people in a niche field can become an egotistical pit of piranhas, and it’s better to just disengage with them, just focus on your own work and career.

  6. TZ says:

    Yes, be careful. Seek out people with integrity and stay away from the rest. Even if you meet good people whom you can connect to, brace yourself: there will come the moment where they cannot be your allies and you cannot be theirs. Don’t take it personally, don’t get jealous, don’t get bitter, don’t submit to guilty feelings.

    Academia is one of the most toxic work environments you can imagine. Scholarly merit and personal integrity are among the least important factors in furthering a career within the institution. Your sense of dignity is almost guaranteed to be the first casualty on this career path. If you feel that you are vulnerable to despair because there seems to be no end to the ways people around you find to be assholes, consider cutting your losses and run.

    That being said, if you’re able to disentangle yourself from the assholes, if you find a mentor and colleagues who can afford to be nice, and if you don’t expect the degree to open specific career paths for you (they don’t exist), then doing a PhD in the humanities can be a wonderful time of intellectual freedom, inspiration, and travelling (add vacation time to any conference you attend — don’t feel bad about choosing locations solely on grounds of allure :-)).

    Good luck.

  7. JJ says:

    I found academia at the graduate level to be toxic — the egos, the privileged people, the covert competition, the physically exhausting hazing — to the point of being a trigger of childhood abuse trauma. Still trying to make sense of it.

  8. KarenE says:

    I agree that too many women feel that ‘helping’ others grow up, be happier, live better…. is the right thing to do. I have certainly BTDT.

    So what did I learn?

    NEVER help anybody who isn’t asking you for help, AND taking responsibility for their own shit. The second part is to protect you from the ‘eternal victim’ type narc, much sneakier than the overt kind, but just as draining and damaging.


    NEVER assume that people WANT to grow up. Some do, some don’t, some will, some won’t. Growing up may seem like the obvious best choice to you (and me, and Coke too), but a lot of people really don’t agree w/that. Understand this; not ‘don’t understand that’, actually ‘don’t agree w/that’.

    And this applies to fellow students, romantic/sexual partners, friends, family members, work colleagues. Pretty much everybody! The only people we need to help grow up are our own kids, and even that has to fade away, allowing them to take that responsibility, too.

  9. KarenE says:

    Also, take a careful look around at the type of place you expect to be working, once all that studying/researching/writing etc is done. If those places are also filled w/self-centered sharks? Seriously consider how you’re going to change career paths, either now, or once done school. It is NO FUN to work w/disrespectful people, no matter how lovely the job ‘on paper’, how much good it should be doing or how much it pays. It wears you down and wears you out. You’re going to be spending a lot of your life on your work – think about how to make that go well for YOU.

    • PhDer says:

      Thanks Karene. This is something definitely worth thinking about. In the past I’ve had good relationships with the people I’m surrounded by day in and day out. Now that I don’t feel that way, I see how important it was for being content with my life.

      I’ve also had a boring job before, so I know my career path is important for my happiness as well. Research is not boring (.. at least 70% of the time). Can I have both good colleagues and a good job? I was (I guess stupidly) hoping that I could help myself by influencing the people around me to behave how I want them to behave. That isn’t really up to me, so I will stop worrying about that now.

      • Chris says:

        It can happen. I’ve found it to be so fleeting, though. Good luck, and don’t forget that your only job is (1) Finish the program, and (2) publish something.

    • Colby says:

      I knew someone who had a head injury toward the end of her MBA program. She was lucky to be so close to the end because it was basically like “okay, you still have to do your work.”

  10. JM says:

    Speaking as a female professor, CQ is entirely correct.

    Something that happens in these environments is that men claim they find new topics easy and don’t spend much time on assignments. Women who don’t realize the men are lying feel inferior for having spent a lot of time on their work.

    Echoing CQ, recognize the chest beaters for what they are, and leave them to their game. Learn emotionally detached ways to fuck with the arrogant bastards, and use them sparingly.

    • KarenE says:

      And ya know the absolutely best low-key, emotionally detached way to fuck with them? Ignore them. As little contact as possible, and when they are chest-beating, walk away or look at your phone or gaze at them as if you were a thousand miles away, then change the subject without warning.

      Better for you (you don’t engage), and DRIVES ‘EM NUTS! To those for whom image is everything, they want everyone’s admiration and fear, but it’s better to have you upset w/them, angry, disgusted, than not paying attention.

      The secret weapon ….

  11. Jessica Sen says:

    We need to be strategic about this. These penmanship apes are not our friends. We do not owe them our time or counsel. They are the sort of beta minds that would check out a link to this blog and dismiss it. They wouldn’t know brilliance if it gave birth to them. The world is at tilt and magnetic poles are changing up. It is simple. A superior intelligence must become powerful and change our narrative. We do not submit to the old narrative and use our intelligence to enable inferior minds to power.

    “If your concern is to be taken seriously by your enemy, then you’ve already given them the power to defeat you.”

    Time to fuck shit up.

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