The Stupid Things People with a Ph.D. say on Airplanes

by on 2013-04-10 in Duck- 37 Comments

“My main job [as an assistant professor at insert-flyover-university-here] is advising presidential policy on public religious life.” I actually heard a Ph.D. tell his neighbor that on an airplane.

I know that there might be more worthwhole topics for my first post in months (I haven’t been a total slacker, I have been doing some programming), but none is more pressing …

I have made back-to-back trips to conferences (first ISA and then MPSA) this week, and have connected through Atlanta each time, providing me with the rare opportunity to ride the airplane with other political scientists who I do not know personally.

In these journeys, I have realized that political scientists are weird animals, and we say dumb things to strangers on airplanes. More examples below the fold.

I know that we are rarely let out of our university worlds, and even more rarely let out in packs. But that seems to be no excuse for losing our brains. And, through careful study, I have identified a number of ways we lose our brains on airplanes.

The first, most frequent, and most annoying way we lose our brains is by absolutely not credible bragging. In addition to the junior faculty member who apparently mediates between Obama and the religious community, I have heard academics claim work ten hours a week, get paid to write books, work secretly for foreign governments, be shareholders in their universities, teach more celebrities than have ever attended a particular university, and/or have an inordinate influence on [insert political situation here]. Some favorites that I’ve overheard in the last week: “[Insert state governor here] relies on me for information;” “I’ve studied [insert profession of fellow traveller here] and could tell you how to do it better;” “I can explain [terrorism/the financial crisis/other macrohistorcial trend] so everyone can understand it;” “I  fail students just for fun;” or “I was offered [insert prestigious job/reward here] twice but just had to turn it down for the good of my family.” This brand of brainless-academic-on-a-plane is acutely aware that the people around him/her do not know how bland, boring, and relatively unimportant our jobs really are, and is attempting to prey on an unsuspecting, non-academic audience for self-glorification.

Second to the breed of academic that brags too much is the one who is a control freak. It turns out that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t fly the plane more efficiently, control our connections, direct the pilot, or make any other sort of real impact in changing how the airline industry operates. But that does not stop some of us from trying. I was on a plane delayed three hours on the runway – the full length of the delay was announced when it started. The Ph.D. across the aisle from me spent the next three hours obsessing loudly about whether or not s/he was going to make his/her 90 minute connection. First, no, you’re not; and if you’d paid attention in methods class, this might have become obvious to you. But second, and above that, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, nor can the unsuspecting non-academic who happened to be seated next to this particular Ph.D. Yet many, many academics say stupid things like this on an airplane: “I’m sure cell phone signal does not actually interfere with navigation;” “Boarding this way would be more efficient;” “I think that if we taxi less, I will make my connection;” “I wonder what the pareto optimal weight in an airplane is?;” “I believe the cab ride from the airport will be more than 50 dollars and less than 55 …” Yet in all of these calculations, the control-freak academic does not ask questions like: how many potential tenure-letter writers are listening to me act like a fool? Or how much control do I actually have?

This brings me to the last sort of stupid-Ph.D.-on-a-plane. This is the Ph.D. to whom it has never occurred that they are on the same plane with other academics going to the same conference. S/he shows up in his/her pajamas, and/or otherwise outrageously dressed. S/he then proceeds to behave badly on the plane – sharing with the random stranger next to him/her how much his/her department sucks, how bad his/her discussant draw is, how s/he hasn’t written a paper, how his/her [subpar] department is the best in [insert region here], how the conference s/he is about to attend is so bad, the funny thing s/he posted on PSJR last week, that s/he is seeking a spousal hire, and other information no other political scientist should actually hear.

So I have advice for all three of these sorts of stupid-Ph.D.-on-a-plane candidates: shut up, and read a book. Then I won’t blog about you while you talk.

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  • Charli Carpenter

    Laura this is fantastic. And fantastically funny. And so dead on. Welcome back!

  • Altay Atlı

    Another stupid thing to do is to write (or to attempt to do so) your conference paper and/or presentation on the plane… Either finish your paper on time while you’re still in your office/home, or if you really have to do it, at least pretend to be writing something for fun, like a blog post on what people are doing on airplanes :-)

  • Paul Gowder

    This is unreasonably harsh. (Lots of academics get paid to write books, especially those at places where most of your time is supposed to be spent on research. It sucks to be screwed over and miss a connection thanks to airline incompetence, and do you really expect people to smile and offer free kittens to everyone in the situation? Since when is there a rule of etiquette requiring people to be dressed up on planes? etc. etc.)

  • David Walker

    I believe I am guilty, though not recently, of saying the bit about cell phone signals and navigation. As a mere Ph.D. Candidate, however, I believe I remain in the clear.

  • DuckPM

    Yes. My understanding is that the cell phone thing is less for the plane and more for the cell phone towers. (Having left my cell phone on inadvertently once or twice, I certainly hope so.)

  • Mike Tierney

    I would like to nominate this blog post for one of the uber-prestigious new blog awards. Now I am actually looking forward to getting on a plane tomorrow and looking for these fools. And…I will remember not to wear my PJs!

  • ironyroad

    Forget the technical navigation issue. Just imagine a three-hour flight with 75% of the passengers screeching into their cell phones.

  • Victor Ramos

    ““I’m sure cell phone signal does not actually interfere with navigation;” It doesn’t, actually. That’s not why they want them off, so it wasn’t that stupid of a thing to say. Just fighting the for the little guy here, don’t mind me.

  • Sharain Naylor

    1.Noise cancelling headphones drown out the blather and hum quite nicely. 2.EMT isn’t additive. It’s not going to interfere with the plane or the tower. The air tower isn’t used transmit your calls and data. Last year the NYT Bits published the following article that discusses this widely held unproven notion about Edevices. Basically, it’s in your interest to shut them off in order to avoid assault and arrest rather than interfering with the plane’s comms equipment. Share this article on your next flight!

  • Jmulich

    This seems at least vaguely related.

    Also, while it’s probably all right for the passengers to be on their smartphones, the pilots probably ought not to …

  • Laura Sjoberg

    @facebook-1328603868:disqus (and all who commented on this), my point wasn’t that the information was untrue – it is that we combine our know-it-all spirit with an utter futility of complaining in this (and many other) situations.

  • Swede

    It is simply bragging. Trying to impress, etc. You know the slightly louder voice. Ugh.

  • Forrest Sargente

    We are obviously suffering under a wave of over-credentialed wannabe elitists, thanks to our institutions of higher indoctrination.

  • wbonesteel

    First: No matter who you are, just because you are an expert in one discipline, does not make you an expert in everything. No individual can know all there is to know about all there is to know. The human race is still quite ignorant. What we have yet to learn is something on the order of a 200 factorial. If each man, woman and child on earth were each an expert in seven billion separate fields, as human beings, we’d only know a fraction of what there is to know. iow, we’re all quite ignorant. The next time you start to brag, keep that idea well in mind. You’re as ignorant as everyone else on earth.

    Two: If you think you can do something better than anyone else, just shut up and prove it. Get a real job, start a company, do it better. Yes, go ahead and build a better mousetrap. (Start a better airline.) The rest of the world will thank you.

  • Waldemar1

    Reason #1 of the 100 Reasons NOT to go to Grad School is:

    The smart people are somewhere else.

    These airplane observations bring that to mind. Some academics really do display amazingly stupid behavior in public. Academic restaurant conversations can be especially painful to overhear. (Is it overhearing if the speaker clearly intends for everyone within earshot to hear him talking?)

  • New Class Traitor

    Rule of etiquette? How about “common courtesy”, and not just on planes but anywhere in public? It’s just disgusting to look at. BTW, I’ve heard the same people dressed in PJs are complaining that the glamour has gone out of airline travel. If you behave like trash in public, expect to be treated like such.

  • Truman North (D)

    I’d like to say that I’m shocked about all the picayune commentary, but I’m not. Academics I know (BA in polisci from a non-Ivy; I’m practically a Cro Magnon) argue exactly like my ten and eight year old kids, only with bigger words. ^_^

  • Taco

    Is it possible that “presidential policy” refers to the president of the university?

    Occam’s razor.

  • #hodgster – KK4NWA

    I agree completely. Getting a PhD simply requires paying money and following a process – it’s nothing really stunning unless you are one of the few that are publishing papers with revolutionary implications to your field.

    We know you wrote a book on Jungian interpretations of Oscar Wilde that no major publishing firm is interested in publishing, so you force your Critical Theory class to buy your $90, 110 page indie-published book. That really doesn’t mean that I care about some conference that you squirted out a 10 page derivative essay so that you could attend.

  • xbradtc

    The REAL reason they want you to shut off devices it to get you to pay attention to the safety briefing. Most crashes happen at takeoff or landing, and post-crash survivors have often credited the briefing for reminding them of things they already knew.

  • RaphaelArgus

    Reading this post was cathartic for me. I don’t think I’ve felt better about my decision to leave a poli sci Ph.D. program (without debt, thankfully) over 10 years ago. Part of the reason was I never really fit into this culture, and I’d lost sight of that. The behaviors described (as well as the defensiveness of some of the commenters here) serve as potent reminders of why I fled.

  • #hodgster – KK4NWA

    Yeah, I just finished my master’s. My profs asked me if I was going to go for a PhD in English and I said “Nah, I’d rather live my life.” They laughed and nodded.

  • RaphaelArgus

    I didn’t intend to smear the entire discipline, or post-graduate education generally. I had polite, well-adjusted professors and peers who went on to amazing things. They just seemed vastly outnumbered.

  • Ajax

    Once, some kid perfesser sitting in the next seat accosted me and commented snidely on the book I was reading as if I were an illiterate who had no right to even pretend to understand such material. I was reading a history of the late classical / early middle ages. I had been reading history longer than he had been on the face of the earth. My basalisk stare shut him up and nailed him to his seat for the rest of the flight. Even talking to some people is useless. Educrats should have to take a test before being allowed out in public.

  • Pat

    All the more reason to let passengers ignore the briefing if they choose. Interfering with natural selection is bad for the gene pool.

  • tankdemon

    If you taxied less, your plane would not make it to the terminal, so any chance of making your connection would be lost.

  • brag’n&blog’n

    Um, pot meet kettle.

  • Harry Huntington

    Perhaps next time listen for what the non-PhDs have to say when they travel. The best conversations are usually those with some business guy and his side piece. Those usually come in a sequence. Conversation one, talk with someone from the office. Conversation two, sidepiece. Conversation three, wife (usually something like say goodnight to the kids). Conversation four, back to the sidepiece. Sometimes the sidepiece is sitting on the plane next to the guy. Usually you can enjoy watching the awkward faces she makes while the guy is talking with his wife. The sidepiece invariably is thin. I imagine the wife is not (but have no facts here to support that).

  • Aaron1960

    The local community colleges are looking more & more attractive all the time.

  • larryj8

    When a delay is caused by a mechanical issue, then you can have a legitimate complaint about airline incompetence. However, a high percentage of all delays are due to weather and traffic issues that are beyond the control of any airline. FAA regulations prohibit an airliner from taking off until there is an available landing slot at the destination airport. Bad weather can greatly reduce the number of planes an airport can receive per hour.

  • RD457FF22H

    Anyone who writes a book that breaks even “gets paid to write books”. It’s simply not that much of a boast. In the case of professors though, many of them are able to write textbooks and require students to buy them. “I’m able to extort students into buying books I write” actually is a legitimate boast.

    In fairness to the PhD community, everybody, including PhDs, bloviates about crap they know nothing about, and my guess is the average Poli Sci PhD knows about as much about airline ops as your cat does. If somebody with a PhD implies that having one makes them more knowledgeable than the average person about subjects outside their expertise, that justifies mockery and opprobrium, but criticizing somebody for saying stupid things now and then is criticizing normal human behavior.

  • DuckPM

    “In the case of professors though, many of them are able to write textbooks and require students to buy them. “I’m able to extort students into buying books I write” actually is a legitimate boast.”

    Several people have made this claim. It doesn’t work like that. None of my professors in OHMIGOD ten years of higher education have made me purchase their books; even had they done so, the marginal benefit to them of 10 or 15 new copies of a book is equivalent to, given most royalty schemes, $0. (The stories I do hear about professors who assign their own books usually have them donating the royalties back to the class in the form of pizza or cookies–which is approximately the scale that non-textbook, non-lecture course royalties would come to.)

  • Lorenz Gude

    I was young, and an academic, once. Thanks for reminding me.

  • RD457FF22H

    10 years? You have my sympathies. I hope it has served you well. I was required to buy textbooks written in whole or in part by my professors several times (and I didn’t get no pizza and cookies). Maybe my experience was an outlier. In any case, they do have that power, even if they don’t exercise it…

  • #hodgster – KK4NWA

    I think the pressure to impress others with words is appealing because to do it with actual publication takes effort.

  • Tina Z

    A good friend/physicist’s spouse (a librarian herself) has a quip she uses more often than she should have to- “you have a phd for one thing, not everything.”

  • LFC

    No one can ‘extort’ or coerce someone into buying a book, even a ‘required’ one, so to that extent I agree. Nonetheless, buying a required bk is often the easiest option and, as you imply at the end, if a prof writes a textbook and it’s successful in the marketplace he or she can certainly make some real money, given textbook prices these days, irrespective of whether the prof happens to assign the bk in one of his/her classes.