Your research entourage—Essential relationships you need to succeed; Week 2: The dreamer and the doer
In last week’s post, we discussed the importance of having a coach in your research entourage. Today we’ll focus on two people who you need in your group of colleagues and collaborators, even though having both of them in the same room might drive you crazy: a dreamer and a doer.
Life is naturally full of opposites and opposing viewpoints: yin and yang, hot and cold, up and down, cat and dog. Working in research is the same: there’s a crucial balance you need to find between what seem like polar opposites in how you see your work, in how you interact with other colleagues, and how you progress your science. Having opposites on your team doesn’t mean they will cancel each other out or claim superiority of one over the other, but instead they should provide external impetus to complement your own traits and personal balance, as we’ve touched on in other previous posts.
A career in research is not an easy gig: it requires that you continually think of new ideas while re-evaluating the old ones, and are always thinking one step ahead of where you’ll go next. At the same time that you are thinking big, you also need to see the real-world limitations and be aware of the detailed steps that you will need to achieve those big ideas. The people that think about those big, new ideas are the dreamers, and the ones who think about the here and now and the limitations of what you can do at this moment in time are the doers.
Everyone exists somewhere on the dreamer-to-doer spectrum, For your entourage, you will need to identify someone that dreams bigger than you and another person that notices the logical flaws more than you do. You should then strive to use their opposite perspectives to balance your own, with the dreamers showing you what you can do and the doers helping you see how to make it happen.
The dreamer vs the doer: Is one better than the other?
Who are the dreamers? Dreamers are the people who think not just about the big picture, but the big, BIG picture. They look at research and how it fits into the grand scheme of the universe, and how science is out there to save the world. Dreamers can come up with brilliant ideas and hypotheses that challenge the status quo and who push the envelope further and further. Dreamers don’t tend to focus on the details of research but rather the potential of research, and tend to have a positive outlook on the field and its ability to impact the world.
Who are the doers? If the dreamers are the ones on stage talking about how they’re going to save the world, the doers are sitting in the audience getting a headache thinking about all the work that would need to be done to achieve that vision. Doers tend to see the here and now, and focus on the challenges that lay behind every idea and what it takes to actually bring an idea to fruition. Doers want to make sure their evidence is solid before pushing the envelope or challenging the status quo. Doers like details because they helps them understand the steps it takes to get somewhere, and they may come off as pessimistic (although they are more likely realists), especially if you take the potential of an idea farther than they think it should go.
Is one of them wrong or right? Is one of them a better scientist than the other one? The answer to the both questions is no. Both the doer and the dreamer have valid points and key perspectives, which is why you need them in your entourage. As a career scientist, you need those big picture ideas and wide-eyed dreams to motivate you to keep going with your work and to keep you engaged in what you’re doing by dreaming big about what it can can impact. But you can’t just have good ideas, and those good ideas won’t come to fruition overnight. It takes time to get to a big breakthrough, and you need to learn what it takes to prove or disprove an idea and how you can do research in a targeted, logical, and realistic way. And even if you’re on one side of the doer/dreamer spectrum of one side or the other, it’s good to have an additional set of eyes from both sides, in order to have a clearer 3rd party perspective on both the big picture and the small details
The dreamer and the doer in common research scenarios
Let’s take a look at how the dreamer and the doer see things differently, and how you can learn to see from both perspectives and gain from both ways of seeing the world:
Dreamer: Wow! Your data is amazing! It’s the best data ever, and you’re going to get a Nature paper!
Doer: Um, where are your error bars? And is this a corrected p-value for multiple testing errors?
Dreamers will always get excited about new ideas and promising results. Dreamers can also help you get excited about your research again, especially if you feel like you’ve been trudging through a problem for a while. In contrast, doers tend to take everything, especially data, with a skeptical first glance, needing to be convinced of something before accepting it as truth. Feed off the optimism of the dreamers but listen to the skepticism of the doers.
Dreamer: That talk was so great! Dr. BigName is really going to change things in the field!
Doer: Dr. BigName is not interpreting the data correctly, and his/her slides are poorly done.
Dreamers love learning about new research and the potential it can have to change things, and are optimistic of real changes being made by science. The doer listens with a cautious ear, keeping in mind that even the best data from the best researcher has limitations in terms of what it can tell you and how it can be interpreted and used. Let dreamers help you get excited about what’s happening in your field, an excitement which can help you get through the duller moments of research, and let the doer be there to remind you to look closely at each new finding or idea with a fine-toothed comb.
Dreamer: Ooh, interesting side projects! You can do this experiment, or that analysis, or both, or …
Doer: What does it say in the project proposal that you should do? Also the machine you need is broken and when it’s fixed then that experiment will take 2 weeks to finish.
Dreamers are good at coming up with lot of new ideas, many of them quite good or interesting. But it may not always be the best to pursue every side project or idea, as too many offshoots won’t lead you to a cohesive project, but instead an amalgamation of interesting facts with fewer long lines of logic running through it. Doers like to stick to the plan and to think before jumping into new experiments, and also see the practicalities that lie in projects and side projects, including time and consumable costs. Recognize that the dreamers will have good ideas for other work to do and that the doers can recognize which ideas can lead you to the best end product and what it will take to get you there.
Dreamer: Hi, new collaborator best friend! Here’s 50 great ideas and things we can do with you.
Doer: Hello, potential collaborator. Let’s discuss the terms of our collaborative venture and decide who’s doing what.
Dreamers enjoy making new connections and talking to other researchers about ideas, not all of which come to fruition. Doers are more pragmatic in how they interact with and reach out to colleagues but go into working relationships with a clear understanding of what comes out of it. For meeting new people and getting excited about potential, follow the dreamer. For making things happen and keeping yourself from being stretched too thin, follow the doer.
Dreamer: Let’s have an hour-long conference call and talk about all the great things we can do!
Doer: Let’s send 2 emails and decide on a way forward.
A dreamer understands the importance of face-to-face meetings and conference calls as a source of new ideas, and is always an engaged party in the discussion. Doers may not be big talkers but they always make sure there’s a plan going forward, even after a long brainstorming session. View meetings and discussions as a positive, idea-generating activity like the dreamers, but leave the discussion with a clear plan of goals and deliverables like the doer.
Dreamer: I’m going to change the world!
Doer: I’m going to get more coffee.
Dreamers have an infectious excitement about work, their research, and what it all means in the grand scheme of the world. Dreamers are the type of people that got excited about science as kids and never turned it down a notch. Doers may have a more realistic view on the future and their place in it, which is practical but not always exciting. While you do need this pragmatic perspective, not having it balanced out with a bit of enthusiasm can lead you to feeling like you just need to churn out data in order to succeed, forgetting that it’s the ideas and the dreams that help get you to success and help keep you going.
Dreamers and doers both have a place in the world, and we need both of them in an entourage, even if their opposing viewpoints can sometimes drive you mad. They help us see the benefits of being practical versus dreaming big, of getting excited versus being skeptical, of the BIG picture versus all of its crucial details, and of talking the talk versus walking the walk. And if you’re not a particular fan of our analogy, you can try another one for size. And just think: if they made a caffeinated beer, what need would there be for a research entourage at all?
In your group of friends, there are probably quite a few personality types, and different friends that you rely upon in different situations. Some friends always have a funny story that gets you laughing no matter what else is going on. Some friends give great advice for any tricky situation you end up in. Some friends will just listen to you on the bad days when all you really need is a friendly ear. Your group of friends is a source of laughter, encouragement, distraction, or whatever else you need to keep you going.
Just as with your group of friends, you should surround yourself with colleagues and collaborators that balance your own skills and personality, ones that can help you out in the wide array of situations you’ll end up in as a researcher. Your entourage can be there to help your scientific achievements or can help you further your own career. In this series we’ll be looking at the five types of people that every career researcher needs in their entourage. Just like the moments in your life when you need a good laugh or need a shoulder to cry on, there will be times in your career when you need these different perspectives and different types of help. In this series we’ll talk about what each member of your entourage can do for you, how to identify a person who can serve in that role, and how to foster each type of relationship.
Entourage member #1: The coach
If you played sports or did any sort of competitive or organized activity (chess, dance, cheerleading, drama, etc.), you know the difference that a coach can make for both individual and team success. We can look back on moments of practices, competitions, performances, or games and see the role that a coach plays. Coaches are the ones who push us to the edge of our current abilities, who break down each part of what we do in order to improve and perfect our skills, who develop our game plans and competitive strategies, who recognize when we’re giving it our all and when we need to push a bit further.
But from the coach’s perspective, what is coaching all about? Yes, there is usually some credit, award, or recognition that coaches can gain when helping a team or an individual to a win. But in the end it’s the person or the team that does the work and gets the glory, and the coach is there to help a person or team achieve the best possible outcome. And that’s why your research entourage should include a coach: they are there to help you grow, to encourage you to foster your strengths and ameliorate your weaknesses, and in the end they are primarily after the satisfaction of seeing you succeed.
While I played some sports (rather poorly) in high school, it was only recently that I noticed the parallel between athletic coaching and academic mentoring. I spent a busy week at work re-analyzing data alongside my boss, feeling bogged down by the tedium of going through R code together in his office for an entire day and feeling like I should be able to do it on my own and figure it out along the way. After a Monday morning discussion about the importance of not editing code without knowing what that part of the code was doing because it could make the results uninterpretable (certainly a valid point!), I headed to tae kwon do class feeling a bit frustrated about how the day and previous week had gone, and ready to work off some energy.
As our warm-up for class, we started with circuit training. We do alternating exercises ranging from non-intimidating (e.g. jump rope) to pure torture (e.g. triangle press-ups). For each exercise, we first perform it for 1 minute followed 20 second break before moving on to the next exercise. At the completion of the circuit of exercises, we do them all again for a quicker 15 second time period and only a 5 second break. After the exhausting ‘sprint’ circuit, we finish with a 30 second interval with 10 second breaks. During the circuits, I consistently put my hands behind my head for sit-ups due to bad habits (and sore abs), and was corrected by our class instructor not to do the sit-ups that way because it was bad for my neck. I quickly took his suggestion, and while finishing the warm-up I began to think about the parallel between what my boss and my tae kwon do instructor had done that day. Pointing out an error, explaining why it was bad, and keeping a side eye on me to make sure I didn’t repeat the mistake again. At work, I had become frustrated, but I had taken a similar type of comment in tae kwon do class in a more open and understanding way.
I realized that the difference between work and tae kwon do was in how I was seeing the relationship. I have always looked at my tae kwon do instructor as a coach, which is easy to do since it's a sport and our classes feel like a ‘normal’ coaching situation. However, I had seen my working relationship with my boss in a different way, not as a coach but as a boss, and someone telling you what to do because it needs to be done for the company/project/task. But on reflection I could see that my boss and tae kwon do instructor are both coaches, and are both good ones at that. I know my boss wants me to succeed because it means more papers or grants for his lab, but in our conversations he’s also made it clear that he wants me to see me become the best researcher that I can possibly be, and takes the time to discuss problems and approaches with me because of that.
So what exactly makes a good coach, and how can you find one if you don’t feel you have a person filling that role already? One of the key components of a strong coach-athlete (or in this case scientist-in-training) relationship is that the coach emphasizes growth and development. A coach may tell you to do things you don’t want to do on your own, or critique your form or method or working, but the goal of what they are doing should be to make you better. A good coach is one who pushes you and works with you not just for their personal benefit but in the joy and satisfaction he or she gets from helping another person succeed. At the same time that there are strategies for good coaching, there are also ways to be a better scientist-in-training. Listen to your coach with the mindset that what they are saying is to help you, not to judge or critique harshly. If you do something wrong and they acknowledge it, take what they said and use it to improve how you're doing what you’re doing.
If you’ve identified a coach type of person for your entourage, one way you can make this relationship more concrete is to discuss the expectations and goals for you and your coach. With an athletic coaching situation, it’s usually clear what the end goal is, be it a winning season or a faster 100m sprint time. Within research, there are usually milestones within a project but not always a detailed set of expectations or goals that can help you get from start to finish. Should you report to your mentor frequently or have a one-on-one meeting on a regular basis? What format of feedback should your mentor provide to help you determine if you’re reaching a goal or not? What set of skills do you already have for the task at hand and which ones need to be further developed, and do you need formal training outside of lab for any of them? Addressing the expectations of both you and your coach, as well as recognizing that being pushed in a positive manner is essential for personal growth, can help prevent any communication break-downs that arise simply from not knowing what the other person expects.
If you don’t feel that you have a coach type of mentor in your entourage, try to identify a senior group member, a professor in your department, or even just a slightly more experience colleague as a potential coach and talk to them about their interest in being your guide and mentor as you navigate through your research. There are quite a few articles on what makes a good coach, but for the sake of brevity we’ll focus on just a few of the crucial ones:
While I already have both a PhD and a black belt in tae kwon do, I am thankful for my coaches in both the lab and in the dojo, because both are there to help me work on becoming an even better researcher and martial artist respectively. I’m still seeing R code when I close my eyes and the triangle press-ups have given me excrutiatingly sore arms, but perhaps that’s what progress is supposed to feel like, at least for a little while (or in my case until the next day of work/tae kwon do class!).
Once you’ve established the coach for your research entourage, you’ll need to identify the remaining members of your group. Your entourage should include a coach, a dreamer, a doer, an ally, and a sensei. Who are these other four people, you ask? We’ll focus on the rest of your research entourage in the rest of our series in the coming weeks. In the meantime, enjoy one of our favorite movie clips with, shall we say, a slight misstep in constructive coaching (although we do agree there’s no crying in science, there’s probably a better way to say it).
Monday morning alarms aren’t known for being my favorite part of the day. Coupled with the unexpected and sad news of the death of David Bowie after an 18 month-long battle with cancer, it was enough to put more than a bit of a damper to the start of my week. In addition to the numerous homages, obituaries, and tweets about our thoughts on this enterprising musician appearing on the internet this week, I wanted to honor this inspiring man, and fulfill one of our Science with Style new year’s resolutions by talking about the ‘style’ side of Science with Style.
In the inaugural post describing the concept of Science with Style, I mentioned David Bowie as one of my inspirations as a person with style. In many ways science is the easier part of the concept to define in clear terms, mainly because the term ‘style’ gets more easily confused with other things. Is it being fashionable? Is it following trends? Is it being different? Is it a specific or unique approach for doing something?
A google image search of ‘David Bowie style’ will lead you to a wide selection of eclectic hairstyles, fabric choices, and colors, in a way that seems impossible for it all to have been adorned by a single man in his lifetime. But it’s all him, and in all the pictures ranging from young to old and in costumes or street clothes, he seems to carry the same confidence and self-assurance throughout his long and equally colorful career. Whether you picture Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the thin white duke, or any of his many alter egos, he started off as David Jones, an up-and-coming musician who just wanted people to stop disrespecting guys with long hair. Instead letting the things people said about his own style or ideas get to him, Bowie brushed them aside and personified who he was and who he eventually wanted to be.
While you could look at Bowie’s life and say that his characters were never truly ‘himself,’ you can also look at his colorful, chameleon-like shifts in persona and style as an analog of the metamorphosis we all experience throughout life. None of us are the same as we were in elementary school, or high school, or college, or anything in between where you are now and where you were last year. But the similarity between all of these stages in life is that we were ourselves, just at different points of understanding who exactly that person was. Part of the process of growing up is not in getting each step 100% right but in recognizing as you go what worked, what you liked, what made you feel good about who you are, and where you want to go next.
It may sound like an easy thing, but it’s amazing how hard just being yourself is to implement. In my own growing pains, I spent more time than I should have worrying about what other people thought of me. After finishing elementary school, leaving behind friends and entering into a new environment of class periods, gym class volleyball, and puberty, I had a sudden and frightening realization that I was weird. Instead of embracing who I was, I held back. I was shy in class, I didn’t seek out other equally weird friends, and I felt all the time that who I was as a person was lacking because I didn’t meet some nebulous expectation of what a 12-year old girl was supposed to be. While to a certain extent I grew out of the feeling, I still felt this tug during high school and college. But even with that tug of self-improvement and feelings that I wasn’t good enough, I started to grow out of my the self-doubts and continued to work on defining myself in better detail.
Graduate school brought a lot of new challenges: working in teams, learning how to fail (but also to keep on trying), and making PowerPoint presentations with less than 10 words on a slide. I’m thankful in my time as a PhD student that I also discovered that my weird wasn’t weird, it was just me. At the same time that I was starting to learn how to better be myself, I got “Life on Mars?” stuck in my head when my husband started singing along to a cover version of it. I then listened to the original, followed by a summer of having the "Best of Bowie" CD on permanent residency in my car’s CD player. Between blasting 'Rebel Rebel' while driving around campus with the windows down or singing along to 'Queen Bitch' during long pipetting sessions, I was soon completely enthralled with Bowie.
But it’s not just the songs I danced to, drove with, or sung out loud to that made Bowie enthralling. Amidst the stresses and uncertainties of research and grad school, I found solace and relaxation while listening to the “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album, usually on repeat for hours on end. Never before had one album had a mix of songs with such power and emotion: from the relentless guitar intro of ‘Hang on to yourself’ to the slow build of ‘Five Years’ (which I still haven’t listened to all the way through this week without getting choked up). While it’s considered one of the best rock albums of all time, I didn’t know that fact before I fell in love with it, I just loved the way I didn’t feel alone after listening to it. “Oh no love! You're not alone; No matter what or who you've been; No matter when or where you've seen.” [David Bowie, 'Rock and Roll Suicide']
And in life’s moments that weren’t so serious or in need of a helping hand, I found Bowie was still there to remind me that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to do what you want and not care what anyone else thinks. I got married in September 2012, and while I was not an overly worrisome bride, I still wanted everyone to enjoy the day. I avoided diving too deeply into my eclectic musical favorites for the reception playlist and instead focused on choosing a few songs that I knew certain family members or friends really wanted and let the DJ do the rest of the work. But apart from the slow dances with my husband and father, the song that stands out for me the most was when I heard 'Modern Love' start up on the speakers. I shot a smile at fellow Bowie fan and newly minted husband, and despite neither of us knowing much of anything about dancing, we gave it our all. We probably looked like some damn dancing fools, but I didn’t care. It was one of the best parts of my wedding. It was our song, and we danced our hearts out to it.
I find that even now, with a PhD and a year and a half of postdoc experience in hand and more serious thoughts of what career I’m setting out for, I still have moments that I need reminded of that 'Modern Love' dance, reminders that I’m weird AND I’m me, and that I’m not one without the other. Life as a scientist and as a researcher has a way of making you feel like that who you are as a person is somehow lacking. There’s always a paper that needs to be written, data that needs analyzed, cells that need split. Or an email reply, meeting, conference talk, or collaboration on the ever-growing to do list. Some days we don’t get work right the first time around, and some days we simply can’t do everything that needs doing. Some days we don’t feel like we fit in, especially when we compare ourselves to what we perceive people spend their time doing with a ‘normal’ 9-5 job, while we’re spending Saturday afternoons in the lab contemplating raw data, unlabeled test tubes, and half-written manuscripts.
It’s in those moments of self-doubt and uncertainty that we all need to learn how to better embrace our own sense of personal style. Whether you waltz, samba, tango, or just nod your head to the beat, dance along to the music as life gives it you while you figure out how to fold in your own rhythms to it. Style is not about trends, or fashion, or doing things right or wrong: it’s about doing things in your way, in a way that makes you shine. You won’t get it right the first time, and you won’t meet everyone’s expectations, but as long as you strive for finding yourself, whoever that is, you’ll succeed in the end.
While we can’t tell you how to find your own sense of style, since it is yours after all, hopefully with this post and a few short tips you can set yourself on your way to becoming your own Ziggy Stardust of sorts:
Throughout his life and musical career, David Bowie shared his music and showed us the meaning of style. If science is a way of thinking, then style is a way of living: we are thankful for his legacy of style through music, fashion, and in just who he was as a person. Bowie will certainly continue to be an inspiration here at Science with Style and a go-to musician for times that need comfort, support, strength, and, of course, those moments when you need to just dance.
How to handle criticisms in science: Achieving a balance between confidence and modesty in the work place
Whether it was the new Star Wars movie, sparkly outfits worn by people going out on New Year’s Eve, or your aunt’s Christmas pudding, we all likely spent part of our holiday break making assessments, judgments, and the occasional criticism (especially towards puddings). We can all be very critical at times, judging the outfits worn by celebrities or passing judgement on whether a movie or song or day was good or not. But while some may pity those who live their lives in the critical limelight, scientists also find themselves the brunt end of criticisms, whether these criticisms come from peers, mentors, or colleagues.
Science progresses through a combination of new hypotheses and the constant scrutiny which is necessary to establish and validate them. Unsurprisingly, the scientific field is rife with people ready to tear down what you do and judge each individual piece of your work to make sure that what you’ve done or shown is really worth it’s weight. Those of you in graduate school or early career researchers have likely had your fair share of it already, but here are a few more examples to set the tone for the rest of the post:
The first step in handling criticism is choosing how to respond to it: Learn how to receive critique and grow from it, take the good out of comments, and forget the overly personal parts. At the end of the post there are a few short suggestions of how to do this. Before that, however, we’ll look at the extreme ends of how people can fail to deal with criticism in a positive way:
The softening response: Becoming overly sensitive and losing self-confidence
If you are naturally not a self-confident person, you may find that criticism can hit you very hard and very fast. While you can likely recover on your own with time, the pace of a career in science, especially as graduate students, does not leave you much time in the way of building yourself back up again before the next round hits or before you need to get up and going again. Without time to recover from prior wounds, your outlook can quickly become overly pessimistic. You lose the ability to benefit from criticism and assume you’re simply not cut out for research. This attitude is often self-perpetuating, which can lead to reduced motivation and increased sensitivity to additional comments.
The hardening response: Becoming overly confident and losing self-criticism
On the other side of the spectrum are those who have very high opinions of themselves. They deflect all types of criticism by having an inflated self-image, but by doing this they can lose critical insights by being too quick with their defenses and assuming the critic was wrong. While in no danger of losing self-confidence, they can easily become attached to their own ideas and may deflect valid critiques or alternatives, just because they don’t want to admit they might not be 100% right. Too much pride can lead to a stubbornness which can hinder scientific progress, and can even bring a person to a dead-end halt in the middle of their career if they do end up eventually being wrong.
The nonexistent response: Becoming apathetic
A third option is to become entirely apathetic to the stream of criticism. Instead of defending their own ideas, trying to improve their work, or trying new ideas they do none of it, an apathetic researcher carries on stuck to their plan of research and avoids deviating from it. While not at the extreme of either case, apathy generally leads to mediocre research based on questionable ideas that were never defended nor improved upon, with any chance for greater success or implementation lost in the stagnation of effort.
The balanced response: Stay true to yourself while learning what to fix
As with our rubber vs steel post, there is a balance in work and in life where we must be strong and unwavering yet flexible and adaptable. It’s working towards this same type of balance that helps you deal with and grow from criticism during your career. There are times when you need helpful criticisms to improve your work while not letting the overly negative/personal criticisms get under your skin. Tell yourself that, despite the occasional misstep, you are on the right track and are learning more every day.
For the moments of being too soft: don't take criticism directly to heart, but listen instead to what the message at the heart of the issue is. Instead of taking it personally that your committee member made an off-handed negative comment about figure legends, think less about the tone and more about the message, and work towards making clearer figures for your next committee meeting. And for the times or the people that are too hard: It’s possible that those grant reviewers were all jerks, but it’s also possible they had something valid to say. Even if it was an idea you really cared about, a fresh set of eyes provides a perspective that you wouldn’t have had if you had only looked at things your way-even if the critique itself was a bit of a blow at first.
Part of achieving a balanced response is by knowing what side of the spectrum you tend to stay on and doing exercises to keep yourself balanced Even if you already have some new year’s resolutions on your ever-growing to do list, you can start off the year by working on the following as you muse over your own personal reactions to criticism in the workplace: