Camtu Suhonen: How discrimination destroys academic careers

by , under Camtu Suhonen

Discrimination is a disease that plagues many organizations and often causes more damage to the organization such as profit loss, economical issues, and natural disasters. This is because discrimination destroys the people who make up the organization and causes damages irreparable by money or promotion. Career paths and patterns are things most affected by such a plague because they damage people mentally, emotionally, and socially. If a person is mentally and emotionally damaged by discrimination, this person becomes paralyzed and unable to function properly within the organization. Also, socially, victims experience role malfunction and resort to isolation for comfort rather than ask for help from colleagues.

The following tells a short story that reflects how discrimination in the academe and the workplace can negatively affect a person and cause problematic career patterns:

On an interview for a Ph.D. position at a university in Netherland, John, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was met by a professor who utterly undermined his professional capabilities just by being mean and dismissive. During the interview, the professor commented on his subject grades and thesis grade to be quite higher than usual compared to Netherland standards. He sounded surprised, but not impressed. 

While scrutinizing his CV after a few discussions, the professor was shocked to discover that John is currently taking up a second degree in economics at the time. John expressed his reasons freely with confidence, explaining the benefits of having a second degree in economics. However, the professor took it differently and concluded that the second degree puts John at a great disadvantage because he might forget all about physics—the major he’s applying for. 

Though the physics major remained John’s focus for 11 years, the professor thinks that the economics degree can easily overwhelm him and redirect his focus away from physics. Sharing his point of view was understandable for John; however, the professor commented about something that is quite irrelevant to the interview’s topic—his age. At 27, he’s pretty young and obviously puts him at an advantage over other older applicants, but the professor thought otherwise. He said that John is too old for a Ph.D. because by age 30 when he finishes his Ph.D., he thinks John will have less time to contribute to the science. This came to a shock to John because he met many other Ph.D. candidates and students who are way older than him and yet he is considered too old? It made no sense to him but he just calmly put up with the professor’s irrelevant and somehow mocking comment (based on the tone of the professor’s voice). Things got worse when John later received an email from that same professor. The email stated that John was “a bit lost in life” and unfit for the position. This bothered him greatly and left him wondering how on earth did he end up being judged like that? He was not even tested for his knowledge and skills yet, but he’s already been dismissed as unfit or incapable for the position. The experience caused him feelings of depression and resentment. After all his hard work and aspirations in the field, he was suddenly and rudely judged by someone who didn’t even try to understand him. 

Almost a decade has passed now, but that professor’s smug facial expressions and the way he talked to him dismissively haunted him and caused intermittent bouts of depression and self-doubt. On top of that, the encounter with that professor also caused John a great deal of drag in his career. In the academia, good recommendations from reputable people are very important. And since he got a poor evaluation from that professor, his chances of applying for other opportunities were dragged down low. This made John really disappointed with how his life was turned upside down just because one mean professor didn’t like him.

Aside from his experience with that professor, John also experienced the same level of discrimination from a research group in Italy where he worked for some time before finally getting fed up with the kind of treatment his fellow researchers and superiors were giving him and some other colleagues. Turns out, the whites in the research group didn’t like working with Asians and blacks, so they did everything that will make the “colored” ones feel inferior to them. They ignored them on the streets and even ignored the work-related messages they sent. This made John feel degraded and undervalued for the wrong reasons. He never expected that such bullying and discrimination still existed in the modern world. It amazed him how a bunch of immature people can actually ruin other people’s lives just by being their mean selves.

Coming up to Finland, the Ph.D. positions are often assigned by the Professors before the selection process. John met his professor and discussed future plan and he got shocked once again, his professor said: “I have a guy in my mind. Do you understand?” however, the Department hang the advertisement on just a day before. Then, there is no mean of recruiting Ph.D. as normal custody. As said, an anonymous Finn had shared, to get an academic job in Finland or any kind of job you should have a foot in the door, it means that someone should know you or you should know someone else to introduce you the positions. 

From these experiences, John learned that no matter how structured your life is, it can be easily toppled over by mean-willing people who are bent on the urge to drag people down just because they don’t like them. This made John furious and sad at the same time. He felt anger towards the offensive acts that people commit against their own neighbors and he felt great sadness that these people still choose to remain mean and offensive despite numerous confrontations with their unwilling victims. The turmoil these people caused in John’s life weakened him at some point, but John chose to improve and move on. Instead of stooping down to their levels, John promised himself to keep his head high and never ever treat others the way those mean people treated him. It’s true that some people, after falling victim to the same circumstances, become mean as well because they feel like they have to get back at others for being put through all those hardships. However, that will only make their lives worse and create more victims who will later hate them as well.

Many of us may have fallen victim to discrimination and bullying in the academe and the workplace. It is a greatly unpleasant and life-dragging experience, but it can be eliminated by educating future leaders and molding them into better and unbiased people who value diversity and respect people who come from all walks of life.