A little bit bitch and a little bit buddhist always at the intersection of biology, gender, race, and culture. This blog documents my experience as a Canadian postdoc living and working in the United States. I can't promise to be PG13. In fact I promise not to be PG13.
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This morning on the way to work HippieHusband and I had a discussion about charisma, charm, and academics.
The discussion arose because I asked him if he expected his high school friends to be where they are today. He has two friends that ended up as cops and one that started as an engineer but ended up in business development in a big energy company. This last friend is the one that HippieHusband felt had the most charisma and so it was no surprise that he moved into international business development. But is it charisma or just social charm that allowed him to move up the ladder? When I met TheEngineerGoneInternational last year, I didn't feel particularly drawn to his persona. He was quiet and understated but he was charming. That led us to think about what makes someone charismatic. According to Psychology Today, there are four main characteristics that make someone charming: emotionally expressive, emotionally sensitive, even-tempered, charming and can read social situations. I would add a fifth - good looking. I can't think of anyone who is considered charismatic who is ugly, can you?
In the end HippieHusband agreed that maybe TEGI was not necessarily charismatic, but insisted that the CEO of his company is most definitely charismatic. A CEO that is charismatic, well not so surprising really. Wicked start up companies that end up going anywhere require a charismatic CEO to encourage investors to hand over their cash. Did I think my supervisor, RedBull is charismatic. Absolutely not. How about Dr.Add'EmUp? Ha, no way. GeneralSolnGuru? Charming and sweet but not charismatic. I can't think of a single academic I know that would really deserve to be on the same scale as say...Obama.
I have a memory that is quite strong that I think is quite telling about the characteristic of charisma. Back in the day, when I was a fresh and carefree young college girl unencumbered by the bitterness of grad school and postdocdom, I was waiting at a streetcorner for the light to turn green so I could cross the street in GlobalVillage, Canada. And I looked across to the other side and saw that there was someone on the other side. I couldn't see the person, but I knew I wanted to know who it was and I guess that that person, whoever they were was probably pretty important. I could feel the draw from across the street. Finally when the light changed colour, I started walking and as I came closer and closer I realized that I was crossing paths with Pierre Eliot Trudeau. That guy was TheMan. American friends, in case you don't know who that is TheMan - he was the only Prime Minister of Canada with any balls. He truly understood the Canadian identity and our social democratic ideals. He possessed an incredible intellectual wit and was one of the most transformative leaders we Canadians have ever had and maybe ever will. This guy had charisma. He was a rockstar politician that had many women, including my mom all hot and bothered. It wasn't that surprising when at the age of 71 he became the father of a little unknown girl named Sarah Coyne.
But it must be that there are different degrees of charisma. Some are just hot at 120oF/48.8oC and others are simply temperate at 70oF/21oC. Grace Kelly is at the hot end of the charismatic scale. Brittney Spears on the other hand, is pushing her limit to reach out and touch the temperate zone from beneath her skanky bra.
At any rate, I can't think of a single academic whom I would consider charismatic. It may be because the type of person drawn to becoming an academia is the kind of person who would rather be in the lab with the hybrids, HiSeq, and geldocs rather than out in the street shaking hands and holding town halls. In science you don't have to stand out, your science does. But is that perhaps, part of our tragedy. Scientists are often viewed by the average joe (Officer Gilmore, for example) with contempt and disdain for our perceived intellectual snobbery. But we need to have scientists who are like the Trudeaus and Obamas. Part of getting people to listen is drawing them in with your personality. I think that it would only be to science's benefit to have more individuals like that because then we have a chance to make science relevant to societal choices. Politicians and the public alike will listen to charismatic scientists who can effectively communicate scientific knowledge to a broader audience in a way that is understandable, effective, salient and of course, sexy.
So do you know any charismatic academics?
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There are charismatic academics, though they are not common. They are generally not charismatic like politicians or actors, however. If you consider charisma the ability to hold attention, academics have charisma because of their honesty and intelligence.
The problem is, if I start naming people, others will say, "Well, yes, he or she is good, likeable, what have you, but that's not real charisma."
Charisma isn't an innate quality. It is a skill. It takes effort and work.
There was a Buffet piece a few years back, where he talked about a type of brain drain in academics. What he talked about were incredibly bright and charismatic individuals, who may have pointed at or towards the sciences, but decided that putting that much effort with so little compensation (comparatively) wasn't worth the effort. And these individuals switched to business or economics (I'm guilty of this). Why bother spending so many years in school, doing grunt work after grunt work for maybe a low 6-figure salary when you're close to retirement and tenure? 2-3 years of cutting your teeth and making returns for any hedge fund, investment bank, trading company or private bank could net you close to 7-figures, including your bonus which tips you over. Goldman Sachs, at the height of the housing bubble was paying out $400,000 bonuses to their low level analysts and upwards of $5,000,000 to their top traders and analysts.
Do you know how slick you have to be to get into one of those coveted analyst spots? You have to show you can produce. And to show you can produce you have to be convincing and charming. When we got pools of new interns, the interns almost always hovered around 1 or 2 individuals. These were the guys who were charismatic. Who were going to be the new analysts taken under the wings of the guys who just got their offices. Like clockwork, year in and year out. You knew which interns were going to be offered actual paying jobs at the end within the first 3 weeks. These were the guys who were coming with us to celebrate a hostile takeover or leveraged buyout. Who were rolling up their sleeves at 10pm on a Tuesday evening as we talked about finding every single bit of debt or negative information to use. The other guys ended up in the mailroom, taking lunch orders or filing. And we gave them a place to hone and perfect their charm. To learn charisma. To make the most ludicrous pitches believable, in our bids to bully targets and win clients.
And while it is a skill that is acquired, as Dr. Zen points out, it's not a skill I have seen fostered in academia, especially in the sciences. Think about all the great speakers out there. To use CGP's political example, Clinton and Obama certainly spring to mind. Reagan and Thatcher if you go far back enough, even if the left dislikes them. Who does Academia have? Cornel West? Harold Bloom? And those are stretches. Speaking, public speaking, is one of those skills that serves as a sort of litmus test for charismatic individuals. The truly charismatic can convey their ideas and thoughts. And make people care about their ideas and thoughts, or at the very least make them pause to consider. I've honestly never run into a scientist who could do that. In any TED Talk, lecture, guest lecture, keynote, etc. Not a single one of them, based on their presentation, made me want to buy what they were selling. Not a one. Nobel Prize? Didn't matter. Tenure at Cal/MIT/Harvard? Boring. A big part of it is that academics, especially scientists, use facts as a crutch. Yes, facts are very useful. But if that's all you're going to throw at me, I could probably read your presentation faster than you can give it. Please excuse me while I walk out and download the transcript elsewhere.
When I was with a certain Private Equity Firm, we had this test for interns and low level guys wanting to climb. We made them sell us on something ludicrous. Anything. You got to be Bud Fox in Wall $treet and had to sell the middle and senior guys on a plan. Something that would make us believe. We didn't care if it was your plan to buy out Michael Jackson's Neverland and use the gateway at the top of the Ferris Wheel to force a hostile takeover of the North Pole, thereby securing rights to the 2011-2024 Christmas Season. You just had to make us sit up straight and take notice. If you could do that. If you could make us believe, worked on us as individuals, compel us to look at the plan from your eyes? Congratulations. You made the cut. And you had these fresh graduates bending over backwards to do this. Because the rewards were greater. Because once you could do that, you got to take home way more. With Academia, there's this sense of "You won't get money, but you'll have this prestige." Which...doesn't have much cachet outside of Academia.
Crap. I forgot to hit "Preview before posting" before I was done.
Anyway, what I was trying to say is that the people who would be best trained to be those charismatic individuals in Academia aren't enticed to stay, much less look. There's long hours with not much rewards. Even with the tenure so many clamor for. There's just a lot of love for what you do. But sometimes that isn't enough. For me, just making money off people's stupidity wasn't enough. So I left Finance and went back to school. And even now I look at my stipend check, or look at the salaries of guys who have been in my field for 10, 15 or 20 years and notice...it's a lot smaller than what I left behind.
My recent adventures in SocSci research entailed interviewing academics of all career stages. I intend to blog a bit about it soon! Anyway it seems your have your have your graduate students, full of hope and self-confidence, then there are the disillusioned and often disgruntled postdocs. That came as little surprise to me. What did strike me as interesting was how seasoned PIs divided out into two distinct groups regarding their attitude, perspective, and philosophy. Those stuck in perpetual mediocrity seemed to lack the vision and charisma of the more esteemed professors or similar age. What I would love to know is which of the early career PIs will be most successful – is it charisma that breeds success, or does long-term mediocrity drain charisma?
In answer to your question, the most successful academics do seem to possess charisma, and are approachable and personable (likeable?).
I think I have to agree with you CGP. I haven't found many charismatic PIs but it does seem like some of the most successful ones (best known) are super charismatic. In response to my tweet about this, someone mentioned Faraday and Pauling. I think that probably goes for most main stream scientists though.
"charisma the ability to hold attention, academics have charisma because of their honesty and intelligence." I don't believe for a second that because someone is honest and intelligence that charisma or holding the attention of a large group of people necessarily follows.
"Charisma isn't an innate quality. It is a skill. It takes effort and work." Really? I don't think charisma can be taught - charm, confidence, and social skills, maybe, but not charisma. You either have it or you don't.
"We made them sell us on something ludicrous. Anything...If you could make us believe, worked on us as individuals, compel us to look at the plan from your eyes? Congratulations. You made the cut. And you had these fresh graduates bending over backwards to do this." I guess the question becomes where does the line between being "slick" and "charismatic" get drawn. I've always found that there is a slight tinge of desperation in the demeanour of someone who is trying to sell you something. I don't necessarily agree that a person who can convince you of something is charismatic. There are people whose ideology and rhetoric I don't agree with but nonetheless are charismatic.
"In response to my tweet about this, someone mentioned Faraday and Pauling. I think that probably goes for most main stream scientists though." I can't judge that but I wonder how much of the characterization of charisma simply comes from being a well-known and obviously celebrated scientist. If you saw them on the street, would you necessarily be drawn to their persona.
@Dr. Girlfriend "What I would love to know is which of the early career PIs will be most successful – is it charisma that breeds success, or does long-term mediocrity drain charisma?" I wouldn't characterize the successful academics I know as charismatic. Charming and confident most definitely, but not charismatic. I think the question about which early career PIs will be the most successful is easily identified - those that are successful in getting grants, students, and publications not in any particular order. A successful PI is not necessarily one who is charismatic. I can name at least half a dozen senior scientists who are anything but charming.
Of course the problem is that pointing to someone and calling them charismatic is really really subjective. There are no objective criteria to rationally identify someone as charismatic.
Agree(sadly) with most of your points. But disagree that you have to be good looking to be charismatic.
Examples in mind
Serge Gainsbourg and Gerard Depardieu
Both of them are ugly. Not normal looking. Ugly. But they are very charismatic. Maybe
Scientists like that...
Brian Cox and Mireya Mayor come to mind. The problem there (and not taking away anything from their work which is very cool) is that they are both wickedly attractive, which makes it hard to define if they wouldn't have been even more charismatic if they were not scientists!
Being good at what you do can only ever get a person so far. Being good at what you do might win you grants, students, and respect, but being charismatic will attract collaborations and students and provide opportunities and advancement that hard work alone cannot. It takes charisma to self-promote and lead. I think a lot of leading academics do have charisma - at least the ones that get asked back to give talks, get face time on TV, and elected to represent their field.
I do agree with CGP in that I think charisma is a quality we are born with. However, I also think we can work with we have. A person might not be born with classic good looks, but a makeover can work wonders. Similarly I think we can make ourselves appear more charismatic than we really are.
CGP: "I don't believe for a second that because someone is honest and intelligence that charisma or holding the attention of a large group of people necessarily follows."
Let me elaborate. Honesty and intelligence does not necessarily generate charisma.
Some individuals can be charismatic in part because of their honesty and intelligence.
CGP: "I don't think charisma can be taught."
There may be some people who start out with more advantages to becoming charismatic, but I think almost anyone could move up the scale with effort. There's a whole business of teaching charisma; image consultants, handlers, etc.
Plus, how much of a movie star or politicians charisma is due to the fact that we rarely see them without professional make-up or an expensive suit? Would Pierre Trudeau have been as charismatic if he were seen in jeans and a T-shirt?
I agree I know many academics that are socially awkward while brilliant. It doesn't foster charismatic people. The fact we can name them rather than groups says something.
Clearly you did not look enough. Richard Feynman is definitely charismatic.