Pecking Orders Aren’t All They Seem

The term, pecking order, may have been coined in relation to poultry, the office boy kicking the cat clearly fits more into the domain of offices, but we all recognize the tendency to know one’s place in a hierarchy and hence know who can be (literally or metaphorically) sworn at with probable impunity. But sometimes the hierarchy is much more subtle and in the eyes of the beholder as much as in reality. That doesn’t stop it being felt very firmly.

When I went to the USA with my freshly minted PhD, completed almost exactly within 3 years – much more common then – I was a mere 24. I went to join a department where many of the students took 5-7 years to complete their thesis. They were older and far more knowledgeable due to all those extra years doing both taught courses and research. I did not feel in any sense higher up the pecking order, just somewhat embarrassed. I was taught the tools I needed (making silver bicrystals with carefully controlled relative misorientations) by an undergraduate who was employed to do some of the lab grunt work to help pay her way through her courses. Leaving aside the fact that, recently arrived as I was, I found her Californian accent almost incomprehensible, she taught me what I needed to know (albeit this postdoctoral position led me absolutely nowhere as the research simply did not work out). Did all those long-serving PhD students think I was higher in the pecking order as a postdoc? Somehow, I actually doubt it in this particular situation.

When I swapped to work with another professor a couple of years into my stay in the USA, within weeks my research was flourishing and I leapfrogged over another postdoc of much longer standing to be the person who led group meetings when my professor was away. I felt very uncomfortable about this. My guess is that this particularly laid back guy was indifferent, but we never discussed it although I shared an office with him. The students – some of whom were probably still older than me – didn’t seem to object to it either.

So, from my early experiences, hierarchies seem to be fairly fluid, not with the rigidity of some places of work. But the higher up the greasy academic pole one climbs, the more confusing it gets, certainly within Cambridge. Everyone arrives here with their own anxieties about how they will fit in. The Fellow of Trinity who, after a half century in the College, still feels he doesn’t fit in as he wasn’t an undergraduate in that college. The young professor from outside who is parachuted in from Europe to kick start a new research activity in the face of some opposition from the old guard, each of whom have years more experience both of research and Cambridge. The senior professor who still resents the fact that a colleague had once had some good fortune come their way when they did not. Not exactly about pecking orders as such, but certainly about interpersonal tensions, which erupt at unexpected moments. Typically, I fear, when money is involved.

As a head of house – the collective name for heads of colleges, to avoid distinguishing Masters from Provosts, Presidents, Principles, Wardens and so on – I am very conscious that some of my colleagues have come with amazing track records. I am giving nothing away when I mention that one (Lord Simon McDonald at Christs) has not only had a stellar career with the Foreign Office, but also had an important recent role to play in the (first) resignation of Boris Johnson and the later downfall of Dominic Raab. Another (Sir Laurie Bristow at Hughes Hall) was a career diplomat who had the unenviable task of overseeing the evacuation of Afghanistan in 2021. To listen to him talk about it is to make this particular head of house feel very inadequate, my life experiences seem so shallow and insignificant. Then we have the leaders from media, such as Roger Mosey (Selwyn) who, amongst other roles at the BBC, oversaw their coverage of the 2012 London Olympics that entertained so many of us. Or Dorothy Byrne (Murray Edwards) who came from being Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4, where she oversaw many hard-hitting programmes.

I am also conscious – particularly when it comes to those who’ve worked in the civil service, but also more genearlly – how much more formal training they receive compared with a mere academic. Perhaps the University once offered me a course in change management, but if they did it passed me by, so the language familiar to those properly trained tends to make me very conscious how much my education in that area is defective. But my feelings of inadequacy are simply reflecting the pecking order, as it were, in that dimension. There are many dimensions which impact each and every one of us. For all I know others feel inadequate because I can talk knowledgeably about soft matter physics. It has to be said, however, that other than when trying to explain to someone what my research was all about and how it relates to the food we may at that moment be eating, this is a topic less likely to come up in casual conversation or formal meetings with other heads of house than change management or leadership.

That 31 colleges have 31 very different heads of house coming from many different walks of life (and Churchill College is, at the moment, in the process of choosing my successor to start in autumn 2024) is, of course, a strength when it comes to our collective brains. Diversity in this space, as in any other, is a positive. We don’t all approach a problem the same way, be it connected with student well-being or how to handle new government legislation, and that has to be a benefit to the whole university community.

Pecking orders are all very well if your internal structures are rigidly hierarchical, but for most of us in academia we each bring different strengths which we need to bring to the table, be it for research or running an institution of any sort or size. When feeling dismayed that Dr X seems so knowledgeable about something which is a closed book to you, remember that Dr X may similarly be intimidated by you when you’re discussing your own speciality.

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