How to destroy your science career

Last year, Christian Ott was suspended from CalTech for a year.

For what is believed to be the first time in its history, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena has suspended a faculty member for gender-based harassment. The researcher has been stripped of his university salary and barred from campus for 1 year, is undergoing personalized coaching to become a better mentor, and will need to prove that he has been rehabilitated before he can resume advising students without supervision. Caltech has not curtailed his research activities.

Except, of course, that he wasn’t allowed to set foot on campus, which does tend to curtail one’s research activities.

This was part of a wave of belated actions by universities against their superstars who harrassed colleagues and students. It was good to see, but they could have been even tougher in handling the bad boys.

Well, his year-long suspension is up, and Christian Ott has resigned, as he should have on day one. Now the question remains: will some other university ignore his ugly history and scoop him up? Or will his behavior have effectively demolished his career? I suspect the former, but think the latter would be more just. We really don’t need more people who are contemptuous of the dignity of women in academia.

Don’t weep for Ott, though! While he may be a lousy candidate for the professoriate, he is still fully qualified for the American presidency!


  1. Larry says

    This got me wondering about what has happened to Geoff Marcy, the Berkeley astronomer who was forced to resigned in 2015 for several accusations of harassment for which he later “apologized”. Based on what I could google, he isn’t currently associated with any universities. Is his career kaput or simply on hold? I would think being out of the front line of research for several years, especially in your prime, could be pretty devastating.

  2. says

    Well, his year-long suspension is up, and Christian Ott has resigned, as he should have on day one.

    So, he got a year’s paid leave?
    What does he think he is, a civilian-shooting cop?

  3. robro says

    …he is still fully qualified for the American presidency!

    Heaven forbid! He might qualify on the sexist axis, but he’s still a scientist and we can’t have that sort of person in the White House. Hell, we can’t even have that in science-oriented bureaucratic positions like the FDA. Unless he’s a climate change denier, too. Then he might qualify.

  4. MJKelleher, lurker in the dark says

    @Marcus Ranum

    The researcher has been stripped of his university salary and barred from campus for 1 year

    Nope, unpaid leave.

  5. blf says

    unpaid leave

    Yep, from Caltech’s original statement, as both quoted and boldfaced in the first link in the OP: “The faculty member was placed on unpaid leave for a full academic year […].”

  6. Jeffrey Hammaker says

    This poor behavior is unfortunately common among “star” faculty. In my field, organic chemistry, most of the biggest names in the field (especially the ones with reactions named after them) are complete jerks. It gets a lot more attention (rightly so) when they go after minorities or women, but those jackasses are a subset of arrogant, inhuman “star” professors.

    The whole way that “star” faculty think they can behave needs to change. It keeps producing damaged people who perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

  7. chris says

    And elsewhere:

    And it is not a unpaid leave, from the article:

    “The decision to terminate any employee is one the University takes extraordinarily seriously,” said Victor Balta, spokesman for the university and a senior director for media relations, in a statement.

    “The investigation and adjudication process is designed to ensure thorough consideration before a conclusion is reached,” Balta said. “It was just such a process that led to the termination of Dr. Katze, and this action upholds our commitment to a safe workplace for all employees.”

  8. chrislawson says

    Very minor point: I would have thought a number-crunching theoretical astrophysicist could work from home with remote access to the department’s computers.

  9. says

    Ott still (in july) seems to be submitting articles,as can be seen on arXiv:, even though it may be things that he was working on prior to his leave.

    I do disagree with the opinion that it is just if his career is demolished. It may be due to me living in Sweden, but in my opinion, some appropriate punishment clearly is justified, a focus must also be on rehabilitation. And if the individual in question also has no career to fall back upon this will be so much harder. For his sake, I hope that having learnt his lesson, he finds a position somewhere, being honest with his employer about what happened.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    since there are alot of people who could do his job,
    there is no reason to keep him around.
    why rehabilitate him when he could be replaced?

  11. says

    I think it might make sense to distinguish between “rehabilitate back into a job” vs. “rehabilitate back into a position of authority, where he can easily harass people again”.

    For university positions, I’m perfectly fine with permanently blacklisting people who have been fired for harassment. If you’ve shown that level of poor judgment, you don’t get access to students anymore. Our first responsibility is to the safety of the students and if that causes problems for the harasser, so be it.

  12. says

    13. I agree that such an individual should be restricted from students access, but there may, depending on the institution in question, positions which in the employee not interact with students, at least from a position of authority. Of course, there should be some form of supervision in place.