My lesson learned.

One shouldn’t often engage in a war of words with people who comment on blogs on the Internet.  It’s rarely productive.  In this case, there are a few points I could clarify by responding to a comment with a particularly ugly tone, especially given that it was written by someone with an illustrious career in a field related to my own.  They’ve held the position of chair and vice chair of multiple departments, have been a professor since before I was born and have hundreds of publications…  And yet, this individual has chosen to send me a message with the identity “fuckhead” – accusing me of intimidating a junior grad student.  Instead of using his real name, I’ll use the moniker “fuckhead” that he chose for himself, and I’ll post fuckhead’s comments below, interspersed with my reply.

I do need to acknowledge that my tone in my “Advice to graduate students” was somewhat condescending, due to some rather unfortunate word choices on my part.  I have since edited the post for tone, but not for content.  That said, fuckhead’s comment (and unfortunate choice of moniker) was still inappropriate and deserves a reply – and yes, it is a great cathartic release to reply to a negative comment once in a while.

“Coming on the heels of the previous “why I have not graduated yet” post, this is telling”.

Oddly enough, the point of my post on why I haven’t graduated yet was because I’m unable to find any clear signals in the noise in my data set, while my point on advice to other graduate students was about respecting your colleagues, even if it wasn’t necessarily obvious in my first released version of the post.  Putting the two together might allow for a few interesting conclusions – although I would suggest that it is not the ones that are suggested in the comment.

“It’s one thing to intimidate a student out of the way (rather simple, actually, if you have the slightest clue what you are doing), but what you espouse here will poison you. So you’ve been working on the topic for a while, and some meatball comes along and asks you about the topic, and your reaction is ‘get bent’? What will you tell people when they ask what you spent X years of your life on in graduate school? ‘Get bent’?”

It should be clear right away that fuckhead really doesn’t know me well.  I run a blog to share information and help other people, I have more than 200 posts (answering questions) on, all of the code I’ve written towards my thesis has been available freely on source forge for 3 years, I’ve dedicated countless hours to helping other bioinformaticians online and always make time to help out my fellow students. (My resume is online somewhere, if you want more than that.) I probably have told a few people to “get bent”, as it were, but in this case, I most certainly didn’t.

It’s rather telling to me that fuckhead didn’t take the time to find out who I am before jumping to the conclusion that I’m obstructive and surly towards my colleagues.  I can be gruff when people don’t take the time to think through their questions, but I always take the time to listen to my colleagues and help them find the information they need.  If my tone is a bit gruff sometimes, we all have off days – and it’s an inherent danger of insufficient blog editing as well.

“Do you think that you are going to cure cancer, or are you trying to make a little tiny dent in the vast universe of ignorance that surrounds humankind?”

Wow… leading question.  While I do joke that my job is to “cure cancer”, I’m fully aware that expectations for graduate students are low and making a “little tiny dent in the vast universe of ignorance” is where the bar is normally set.  In case it wasn’t clear, no one expects me to cure cancer while working on my doctorate.

That said, who’s to say that neither myself nor the incoming graduate student can’t be the one who does find an important cure? Why hobble myself by agreeing to do no more than meet your base expectations.? Fuckhead doesn’t say why he thinks I shouldn’t have big goals – or why he thinks I’m incapable of meeting them.  Nor does he explicitly state his underlying assumption, which is clear here.  To paraphrase: “You’re just a lowly graduate student, and thus you aren’t the one doing the important work.”

For the record, I like to think big – and I like to achieve my goals.

“And if you are after the latter, why not start off with the ignorant student that approached you?”

Ironically, since fuckhead’s main point is that he thinks I’m intimidating junior colleagues, his tone is oddly lacking in self reflection.  The implication that I haven’t helped the graduate student already is plain – and plain wrong.  However, that is between myself and the student, and we are in the process of establishing a better relation on stronger co-operation where my time is respected and the students needs are better met.  After all, that is the goal:  By getting the student to ask more focused questions, he’ll get better answers.

Further, given that I am fuckhead’s junior colleague, I have to ask why he chose to respond to my post with such venom.  He could have taken the time to set me straight by leading me to see his point, rather than writing a biting comment that chastises me for being rude to those who have less experience than I.

Irony, anyone?

“If you have lots of good ideas, some dolt stealing one of them won’t hurt you.”

I’m not afraid of people stealing my work, but one should recall the context of my comments.  Frankly, I am a strong believer in open source and collaborative work and if you want to see the code I’m working on this week, all you have to do is download my work from source forge.

Unfortunately, in academia, one generally doesn’t release data until it’s published – that is the default position – and one I have openly questioned in the past.  But, if I want someone’s unpublished results, I go to them with the respect for the work that went into it.  It is as simple as that.

Besides, as someone with an entrepreneurial past, I’m well aware of the value of ideas. One does not disclose the “secret sauce” to competitors without an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), but when it comes to investors, you have to respect their time and effort and be aware that your idea has no value until you’ve done something with it – and even then, it’s still not the idea itself that has value.

However, the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  If I were afraid of people stealing my ideas, would I be blogging them?

“If you don’t have lots of good ideas, how the hell will you survive on your own as a researcher?”

I haven’t the foggiest clue.  I’ve never found myself lacking in ideas, although I’m shying away from the academic career path for this very reason.  I know the value of sharing ideas and of working in a group to combine and improve ideas.  Unfortunately, I don’t see that kind of environment being created in academia where professors competing for a small pool of grant money hoard their findings so that others will be less effective in competing with them.

If there’s one thing that I hate, it is wasting time reinventing the wheel.  Unfortunately, that appears to be an inherent part of the academic process.  (I’m not talking about independently confirming results, which is an inherent and important part of the scientific method.)

To wrap things up, yes, I’ll go quietly back into my little bubble of the universe in which I will quietly battle the raging sea of ignorance around me, but I can’t promise that I’ll stay there.  However, even as I fade quietly back into obscurity, I do plan to learn from my mistakes and to let others learn from them as well.

The hard lesson I learned today was to watch my own tone when communicating on the Internet, to keep myself from unintentionally sounding arrogant and condescending.  I’d be happy to pass the same lesson on to you, fuckhead.

2 thoughts on “My lesson learned.

  1. This was just a pleasure to read, haha.. I’m sure fuckhead also regrets the tone of his/her comment, but it is surely easy to get a bit worked up and write something in the heat of the moment. I also reacted slightly to the last post, mostly because it did not fit into my view of how you want to do science. So a clarification (and edit) of the last post was good to have. Anyway, good luck with the thesis!

    • Thanks – it’s nice to know I haven’t chased everyone away with my last (unfortunate) blog entry. I’ll be a little more careful with my editing before hitting that publish button in the future. (=

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