Responsibility to New Academic Hires

“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”
[“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”]
“Inferno” by Dante Alighieri

I had an interesting day today, with vast contrasts.

On the one hand, I visited the farewell party of an employee. A farewell party that really deserved the name. With speeches — that also deserved the name. Sure, there was some awkwardness, but it was nice awkwardness. And it was full of hints of the best a department can offer. Fostering the talents people have. Then giving them the chance to do their best. Supervisors who care. From an outside perspective (which might be wrong), it was impressive. That’s what university departments should do — help people realize their potential.

And then, prior to that party, I had an interesting conversation with someone who was not only working for a … not-so-good university department. This person was in a moral quandary. This person knew — first hand — how devastating this particular university department was for a career. But that was not the part that bothered this person.

If I try to summarize the conversation with a focus on the moral quandary, the best I can put it now is:

Suppose you are working for an university department that is the academic equivalent of a failed state. It has become a place where careers go to die. Where initiative and creativity is stifled. Where the one thing people learn is helplessness. Where a large part of PhD students do not finish their thesis — officially, “because they didn’t want to become a PhD in the first place”. More likely, because no one cared about their thesis as long as they did the work specified in a funded project proposal. Where the professor never gives positive feedback. Even if it sounds positive, there’s always a passive-aggressive or sarcastic caveat attached to it. Where appearing to be good, where appeasing outside reviewers is more important than doing good work. Where “hot topics” are more important than working on issues that matter. Where academic freedom is used to justify laissezfaire, i.e., disinterested “leadership”. Where all but one post-docs did not have an academic career … and no one knows why this person had one. The others — esp. the really good post-docs — have long left, either for similar positions at different universities or academia itself.

And now suppose that — after going through this severe attrition — this department is putting out job offers, praising the — literally incredible — advantages of that department. After breaking or discarding one promising career after the other, they are starting to draw in a new generation of prospective scientists. And when they have selected the most promising candidate they will clip this candidates wings and prospects of a research career.

I mean, what the hell?!? Am I supposed to let this happen? Or should I warn the candidates that this department is poison. That, yes, it’s a widely respected university department — as long as you do not look at the PhDs and Post-Docs and what happened to them!

What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to be a snitch, I don’t want to be disloyal. But how can I let this happen — again?!?

I didn’t know what to answer. I mean, there is the issue that some supervisors suddenly act unethically and there is no way to warn others about them. But whole departments? I ended up arguing that perhaps it’s not a department problem but a personal one. A matter of fit. Perhaps other people can actually have a career in that university department. But now, with the benefit of some hours to think about it (and some glasses of sparkling and not so sparkling wine to “fuel the intellect”) — I don’t know, but I guess my answer would be:

Never mind what happens to that new post-doc hire, why the hell are you still working for that department?

What do you think? Does this person has a moral obligation to warn prospective hires that this position is career-suicide? Is it insubordination? Is it a breach of loyalty? Isn’t loyalty supposed to be bi-directional? I’m interested in comments.