When you Know More than your Boss

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Astrophysics

Have you ever worked for a boss who knew less than you about your area of work? Or, how do you deal with a boss who knows nothing about the area in which you work?? (If you have any actual advice for dealing with a bad boss, please leave a comment!). My cousin N.* found herself in this exact position. (*She’ll be saying some negative things about management at her current position, so let’s leave some mystery around her name.)

N. is a recent graduate with a degree in Physics, and a background teaching Astronomy, and she’s basically a genius. Her plan after graduating was to do something cool at NASA (where she interned), or head into a Ph.D. program right away (related: here’s a post on pursuing a doctorate in education). But, as she put it, “the reality turned out to be quite different for me and not at all how I planned.” Instead of starting a Ph.D. program, or working for NASA — “a dream I’ve probably mentioned to every person in my family at some point since 9th grade,” she says — my cousin took on a position doing K-12 science research and developing and writing science assessments for various states (clients).

At this job, while she was struggling with the conflict between her expected career path and the reality (as she put it, “who really plans for things to go unplanned? I certainly didn’t.”), she also found herself contending with another major struggle everyone has probably contended with at one point or another:

A boss who knows much less than her. Here, she chats about her experience working for a boss who knows less than her, and how it contributed to her leaving that position this October. Here’s her story.

A boss who knows less than you

I work for a company that does K-12 science research. We develop and write science assessments for various clients (states); my work involves delving into science phenomena and adhering to certain standards set forth by the client.

Our department often has meetings — about 3 times a week — to go over final-stage assessment problems. These meetings are important because they are when we check the validity of our work with our diverse group of scientists, and they’re our final opportunity to uncover last-minute problems for the writer to fix. These meetings, as one might imagine, are usually run by the head of the science department.

The problem is that the head of my science department is a man who does not have a background in science.

The head of my science department — let’s call him Joe Show — runs our meetings. Joe Show is not a science-y guy. By this, I literally mean he has not taken a science class since probably high school. Which is fine. Not everyone is a science-y guy/girl (but generally, they don’t seek jobs requiring knowledge of all areas of science).

To make matters more complicated, I was told during my first week on the job, that no matter what, you agree with the department head. More explicitly, I was told:

“If Joe comes in and tells you that these white walls are a great shade of blue, you tell him ‘I totally agree, you’re right’ and move on with your day.”

So while preparing for my first meeting, my entire mantra and plan that evening was, “I’ll be in the (meeting) room, making no noise and pretending that I don’t exist.” (I was told that I should probably just watch and keep my mouth shut.)

But whoa buddy did that mantra go out the door when the problem on the chopping block was an astrophysics one. So much for liking things planned out. Here’s how that first meeting went:

  • Joe Show comes into the meeting.
  • Joe Show rolls dice to determine which final-stage assessment problem is on the chopping block.
  • One more time: He rolls dice to determine which final-stage assessment problem is on the chopping block.
  • And yes, there are real dice.
  • Because Joe Show had not selected the problem beforehand, he did not have basic background information on it.
  • Because Joe Show did not have basic background information, we ended up spending almost an hour explaining astrophysics to Joe Show.

Of the two hours put aside for this meeting, nearly half of that time was not spent on evaluating the problem. All of which could have easily been avoided if Joe Show had selected a problem ahead of time, and then DONE A SIMPLE GOOGLE SEARCH.

In this meeting, I watched concepts become reduced to simple terms that didn’t encompass the entire meaning – and that seemed flat out wrong to me. It became very apparent that the goal was not to challenge students or encourage them to piece together vital information that scientists use. No. (The goal was to dumb things down just enough so that the “think like an astronomer and physicist” aspect was completely removed from the problem.)

Q: What do you get when your science department head has non-science background?
A: Red tape. Loads of it. (With a splash of inefficiency.)

I was pretty livid at this meeting and I honestly felt like I had the right to be.

I feel like I had to speak up on behalf of the astronomers and physicists who worked so hard to further develop concepts.

I had to speak up for myself and my experience learning astronomy and physics.

And more importantly, my experience with loving astronomy and physics.

I do understand the complications with creating assessments and the different protocols involved. I’m well aware that not all students think the same way, or even have the capacity to think like scientists.

I’m well aware that some students are a product of their environment — and if their state does not believe in something like climate change, they will have no tools to conquer it when they encounter it in reality. And I understand that this is a separate problem with standardized testing in general.

My biggest problem resides in the bureaucratic setup of my organization — and maybe the education system overall.

Being a business, first and foremost, means that the interest lies in making money, rather than actually creating tests that enable students to accurately learn and digest new information based on skills they have already learned.

But isn’t that the main goal of education: to give students the tools needed to decipher the world around them? And not just giving them the answers all the time?

Somewhere along the line, I think we all grew cynical. Somewhere along the line, I think we gave up on allowing students to get things wrong or allowing them to think outside the box. Instead, I think we coddle them and give them a false sense of “learning” by creating an environment where memorizing facts is a better or easier option.

I think my boss is one of the people who perpetuates this issue. Not having a science background, and having more of a business mindset does not allow him to see the world through the physics-colored-lens I wear. Yet, he continues to dictate how physics (or other sciences) should be arranged for students, rather than allowing the team of scientists to capitalize on the opportunity to share our world with students in innovative ways. (But somehow, bureaucracy always finds a way to keep us scientists down!)

I’m just saying, there’s a reason we don’t let airplane passengers fly the airplane. (But that’s none of my business.)

Reprimanded!

What happened about two weeks after this meeting is an entirely different story.

I was called in to an office for a “check-in” meeting with someone who had been transitioning me into the company and my project team leader. This made sense to me because, after all…

  • I was actively trying to ask for responsibility and work.
  • I was actively trying to convey my scientific knowledge.
  • I was actively trying to determine my niche at this company.

And the way the meeting was scheduled made it seem like they genuinely cared about my experience so far, and like my company believed I was a person of value.

I have never been so utterly wrong in my life.

This meeting did not start off with things that I had been doing right in the company. (I don’t even think that was mentioned actually.) They started off with things that I had been doing very wrong:

Offense #1: Peeing.

My first offense? Going to the bathroom at the start of the meeting (and delaying it by roughly a minute).

My sentence? I was given a threat of dismissal for using the bathroom during a meeting.

(At some point while listening to a loud monologue filled with threats, yelling, verbal abuse, etc., I started seeing black spots. It felt like the blood was draining from my body. It felt like someone was keeping my head underwater and laughing at me as I drowned. It felt like a Dementors’ Kiss.)

The voice of my project team leader then emerged. (Was she going to stand up for me? I had really hoped so, but I’d been wrong so far.) But instead, it was time to hear my second offense.

Offense #2: Speaking on my expertise.

My project team leader told me that my comments about astrophysics at the review meetings were out of line because I wasn’t asked for my opinion. She explained that she was trying to protect me.

(But where was this protection when I was being verbally abused right in front of you?)

The rest of that day was still a huge blur to me, but I did go through a box of tissues with my office door closed.

Time to get some support.

That night, I decided it was finally time to stand up for myself, and I scheduled a meeting with HR for the next morning to talk about how I was being treated.

Instead, through our conversation, I learned that the company was not on my side, and that I could expect this treatment to continue.

I learned that being passionate about science and education was not actually a good fit for this company.

Bye, Felicia.

Did I make mistakes? Sure. (Maybe I shouldn’t have spoken out even though I was speaking on my area of expertise. And maybe I shouldn’t have peed when I had to pee.)

But did I deserve to be treated poorly, silenced for speaking on my expertise, and then reprimanded for it (and for peeing!)? Absolutely not.

In the end, I decided this wasn’t where I needed to be. But the experience taught me a few things:

  1. Yes, I should ‘know my place’ in my work environment.
  2. I should also know worth. (And my experience and knowledge are worth a lot.)
  3. I also now know that I want to work somewhere that recognizes that appreciates my worth, and believes in science, education, and the process of learning and discovery… And doesn’t let the bureaucratic process hush those with the passion and drive to make a difference in society.

On Friday, October 20. I submitted my resignation. I’ve never felt so right in my life.

Thanks for sharing your story, N! Readers — have you ever had a position where you knew more than your boss? (Or a position where bureaucracy hindered progress)? What did you do?

P.S. – Career advice from a journalist, and a post about the process of pursuing an Ed.D

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