We previously discussed the first four members of your research entourage, the people who are there to offer guidance, support, encouragement, and alternative perspectives: your coach, your dreamer, your doer, and your ally. To finish out the series, we’ll be shifting focus to a different type of person, one who may not always offer practical words or advice, emotional comfort, or one who knows the ins and outs of how to get a task done. Instead, this person is here to provide you guidance not on the doing side of a career in research, but on the thinking side: your sensei.
From Japanese, the literal translation of ‘sensei’ (先生) is ‘a person born before another’. In Japan, it is a formal form of address used in the context of referring to a person in a teaching role. At first glance, a teacher and a coach may not seem that different from one another. Both of them tell you what to do in order to grow or succeed, both of them give you instructions to follow, and both of them have expectations of what you should be able to achieve. However, the role played by your coach and your sensei is different, and can be summed up shortly as that the coach is there to push you to do, while the sensei is there to get you to think.
One of the crucial parts of success in graduate school or scientific research is knowing your limits and working to get past them, which is what a coach is there to do. A sensei, on the other hand, helps you work ahead to your future career by helping you learn what you don’t know you even need to learn yet. In essence, they are helping you go forward when you still don’t know where forward is. Your sensei should be a person who helps you not in doing the task at hand but in asking the good questions that will help you develop your skillset for any task ahead, and will prepare you for your future career and not just your present to do list.
Sounds like a rather nebulous type of role, doesn’t it? Your sensei has a more philosophical role in your entourage as the person who is teaching you how to think like a scientist, not just act like one. In one of our early posts, we discussed the philosophy side of your PhD. All of the science that you see, from papers to presentations to news headlines, is usually the result of a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, the whole lot. But the idea or the insights from which the work initially spurred from came from knowing how to ask good questions and from recognizing that science has a deeply intellectual and philosophical side that goes with the ‘publish or perish’ side. And the ‘common sense’ part of science, how to think about what you should do, is where your sensei can help.
Part of obtaining a PhD is through getting things Done, but if you want to get good things done then you need to Philosophize about them first. A sensei in your entourage can inspire you to ponder the tasks at hand and why they need doing, where the ideas came from, and where the results can take you. The sensei is there to remind you of the philosophy side of science, to show you how science should work, and to help you learn the process of thinking of new hypotheses and knowing how to address them.
Think of your favorite martial arts movie—maybe you’re inspired by the Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi’s lessons or wish you could train under Kill Bill’s Pai Mei. Whoever your favorite fictional sensei is, you can get a sense of their style as how they differ from a more traditional type of coach. A sensei is not just there to teach you how to punch and kick, and they often times convey lessons in a way that don’t make sense on the surface (e.g., ‘wax on, wax off’). But the benefit of their style is that the lessons they teach go deeper and can resonate beyond the simple or the practical and can be incorporated into a way of living.
What makes a good sensei?
They don’t need to talk in riddles, only eat rice and fish heads, or make you wax their entire floor, but you should look for the following type of characteristics in a potential sensei for your entourage:
- Always asking ‘why’. This will always be the question they ask, and there’s a reason for it. In anything you do, whether it’s a quick experiment or how you decide to analyze data, you should always have an answer and you should always know the answer (without relying on repeating back what your advisor/PI said about it in the first place). A sensei knows the importance of asking ‘why’ in order to better understand the reasons and motivations for working on a certain task, and can help see what sorts of things are important and which are superfluous.
- Tend to give more nebulous or open-ended suggestions. They won’t always be straightforward in their replies, and may not even give clear advice (or any advice at all). As portrayed in movies, a sensei wants you to work towards the solution on your own instead of being told the answer right away, because working towards it on your own is part of how you obtaining a more complete understanding.
- Provide insights from past experiences. As sensei literally means ‘person born before another’, and as such your sensei has been through the process of a career in research already and knows what it’s like. They offer guidance from their experiences, but appreciate that you will need to figure out some things for yourself, and in these cases will simply encourage you to keep learning.
- They want to see you learn more than succeed. This is different than the coaching relationship. A sensei cares less about the win and more about making sure you grow and learn from a situation. A coach might push you to do something before you’re ready to test your limits, but a sensei would rather hold you back than push you forward, making sure that you’re ready before going to the next step. A sensei would see it as a greater failure to let you move to another threshold or milestone without having achieved what you need to at the current one, and will encourage you to stay where you are until you’re really, really ready for the next phase.
- They know how to take time away from work or from a specific problem. A coach is more likely to have you work through a difficult situation, whereas a sensei will have you walk away from it and come back again with new eyes. This is because the sensei knows the importance of having a fresh perspective, and likely themselves can be seen taking a lot of breaks or doing things not related to work, with people maybe thinking they’re more on the lazy side. It’s not due to being lazy or unmotivated, but rather because a good sensei knows that you can’t always figure something out by staring at it.
Fostering the sensei-student relationship
One of the fundamental parts of any relationship (and as we mentioned before while discussing the coach member of your entourage) is having clear expectations of what you and your sensei expect from one another. Ask what they want to see you achieve and have them tell you what their working style is like and what they want you to learn from them. At the same time, keep these points in mind when working with your sensei:
- Respect their perspective and their method. You might find them too slow for your tastes or giving you too many questions and not enough answers, but if they are in the scope of your relationship expectations then work towards meeting them at their level. To keep a sensei on your side, you need to maintain respectfulness in terms of both who they are and the process they use to help you learn. A sensei will likely not respond keenly if not treated with respect—remember that their role is a voluntary one and if they think that you can’t learn or don’t respect how they’re trying to teach you, then they won’t keep working you.
- Ask questions of your own. Part of learning how to be a good scientist is learning how to ask good questions, and part of learning comes from doing. Ask how something works, how they figured out an idea, how they brainstorm, how they unwind, why they do things in a certain way. Their exact style may not work for you, but it can help you figure out what types of approaches and methods you can use in your own career.
- Don’t get frustrated when you feel like you’re not moving fast enough. A sensei won’t let you move forward until you’re ready, which can make you feel frustrated or like you’re being held back unfairly. Relax and try to see their perspective, and see what gaps you need to fill before you can move forward. Pushing against their will can only lead to a falling out between the two of you, but listening and being patient can help you move further as a scientist (and as an added bonus, you might even learn the five point palm exploding heart technique!).
- Follow by example and take your own thinking breaks. If your sensei leaves the office for a swim workout every day at noon, try your own regularly scheduled activity that takes you away from work. Whether it is a coffee away from your desk, a lunch break at the gym, or just a walk around campus every afternoon, a regular time away from the bench or your computer screen can give you the perspective you need to see what was beyond your narrow focus before.
- Recognize that learning is part of success, whether it gets you 100 papers or 1. Learning won’t always come easy, and it may sometimes takes time away from tasks, which we feel are productive, but are not really clearly thought-out. Learning is something you take with you through every stage of your career and is something that additional replicates or new experiments won’t take away. Work with your sensei to ensure that your work has dedicated time for learning, not just doing.
So now with some advice and suggestions for finding and maintaining a sensei relationship, your research entourage is complete! And as with any relationship, communication and expectations are the key to having a relationship that’s mutually beneficial for all parties involved. Talk to your entourage members about what role they play in your life and your career, what you’d like to learn or experience from them, and ask how you can be better at being at the receiving end of their guidance, support, or philosophizing. We hope you enjoyed this series and that you make progress on establishing your own research entourage, whether it be the people that get you through grad school or the ones that help you build on your career in research. Science isn’t an easy role, but with a supporting crew like these you’re sure to go far!
We’re taking a break for the time being from our research entourage series, with the final installment to be delivered next week, due to a slight change in how I’ve spent my spare time writing. I’ve been sending off a flurry of job applications, with more to be done in the following days, due to some uncertainty in my project’s contract extension. The year started off with positive news, and a draft of the contract even made it to the University to be signed by our legal team. But with industry budgets being as they are it was soon on the 2016 budget chopping block, and my fate went from certain to unknown (cue dramatic music!!). While I’m still duly optimistic about my project’s fate, I’ve also recognized the risk of my current post-doc project money ending in June and having nowhere to go but to begin my blues guitar career at the Liverpool Docks.
Initially I felt really uncertain and nervous about my prospects and a bit lost at the thought of looking for a job when I thought I would have another year until I needed to start. It was at this low point that I followed my husband’s recommendation and started reading ‘The Alchemist,’ the story of a young shepherd from Spain who sets out on a quest to find his treasure, buried in the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way things range from going really great to sucking pretty badly, with everything from successfully evading desert henchmen to getting all of his money stolen the first day he arrives in a city. In the book, there is a lot of talk of finding your Personal Legend, with it frequently mentioned that ‘when you work for your Personal Legend, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’
I thought about the shepherd these past few weeks, a person brave enough to leave his happy home and venture forth for his dream. I pondered if by changing my mindset at this potential juncture in my life that looking for a new job could feel the same way. While I am still nervous about what happens next, I am trying on a new attitude for my job hunt: envisioning the search as an opportunity to think about what I want my career to look like next and what I can do to get there.
While working out exactly what my Personal Legend is will probably take a while, in thinking about my current career and where I want it to go in the future, I’ve realized that I like research, but don’t always love it. I enjoy doing good work and in working hard, I enjoy making connections, and I enjoy talking about research and hearing other people get excited about my work or their own. In looking back on the moments of my own career that stood out the most, it wasn’t the number of publications or how many people attended my conference talks: it was bringing ideas and findings together to tell a story, and it was listening to other people’s excitement and enthusiasm about science that kept me at it.
For this reason I’ve decided not only to look for post-docs or research-oriented positions (as I still enjoy what I do and want to keep doing it while I can), but also to keep an open mind and send in a letter (or seven) for science outreach, public engagement, and science writing positions as well. It might be a tough sell in terms of my experience vs what other more traditional candidates bring to the table, but I figured it’s worth a go, and might even lead me to my own bit of treasure at the end of the desert (someday, at least!). And while it may seem like a long-shot at the moment, I’m not the first person with a Ph.D. who’s thought about doing something else, so if other people can do it then so can you (and I)!
As I go through my own rounds of applications and cover letters, and trying to keep myself motivated and not become overly pessimistic about the situation, I’ve come up with a few talking points on how to get through the job application process. I’ll refer to them as talking points instead of tips, since ‘tips’ would imply previous success, which in my case has still yet to be determined:
- Never stop looking but keep your focus. I have a favorite couple of job websites that I peruse on a bi-weekly basis; if you're in the UK and looking to stay in academia or a university setting, then jobs.ac.uk is a great place to start. If you have a university or area in mind and are looking for academic prospects you can also check directly on a university’s website. I have a tendency to just start opening tabs on everything that sounds vaguely promising, but then make it an effort to select the best few and make a note of when the application is due so I don’t miss the deadline. It keeps me aware of the jobs that are out there, with new ones coming in to my view a weekly basis, but in the end I don’t apply for all of them and instead focus on ones that seem the most interesting or the best match to my profile.
- Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone, or qualifications. You can easily tell if you’re not qualified for a position if they name an essential degree or X number of years of experience that you don’t have, but for a lot of entry-level type of work, the requirements are a bit more vague. Even if you feel that your application would be a bit of a stretch—for example, maybe the position is in the health sciences and your degree was in Ecology—don’t be afraid to go for it anyways. You can highlight the other parts of your profile that are a strong match and how your unique skillset is a good fit for the role, even if you’re not a 100% match on paper. The good news is that if you over-extend yourself, it’s not going to come back and bite you. You won’t get in trouble or have to pay any application fees if you apply for a job you don’t get. And if you never applied for the job in the first place, you definitely wouldn’t have had a chance. So the odds are in your favor to just go for it and see what happens!
- Read the post in detail and learn about the company/organization. You only get a resume/CV and a cover letter to get your foot in the door with an interview, so how you set things up and the words you use really matter. If the position calls for a specific technical skillset, then make sure that’s clear and upfront on your CV. If the job is looking for someone with managerial or leadership experience, put any work you’ve done in extracurricular leadership, volunteer activities, or certifications/courses that fit the role. If the job description mentions that they need someone who’s good at ‘strategic planning,’ then bring this phrase into your cover letter with a short description of how it applies to you. Having the key sections or phrases laid out for the application reviewer to see easily can give you a leg up when it comes to making the first cut.
- Have someone critique your letter and resume, and if possible use a different person each time. Before you send your carefully crafted letter and CV, have a friend or colleague take a look at it. And by ‘friend’ we don’t mean your friend who tells you that everything you do is full of sunshine and rainbows. In this situation, you need a friend who will be honest in telling you if the way you phrase something doesn’t make sense, if your letter is too long/too short, if things need rearranging, etc. Having a friend with a critical eye at this stage can help you beat the more severe critics later on down the line. If possible, for each letter try to get two people to read it over, as having another perspective can help you find things that aren’t clear or readable, and your second reader may find something that the first one missed.
- You’ll get a lot of ‘We regret to inform you’ replies…and that’s OK! Even when it’s a job you weren’t really that excited about, getting the email that you didn’t even make it to the interview stage will deal a small blow to your motivation and confidence. Unfortunately, part of the process of applying for jobs involves not getting a lot of the jobs, and being constantly rejected is not something that any of us enjoys. It is frustrating, but it’s just part of the process. I recently heard that a friend of mine from grad school who recently became a professor went through 17 unsuccessful job applications before he got his current, tenure-track job. I’m sure none of those 17 rejections was fun or desirable, but in the end he got to somewhere good and likely learned a lot about the process along the way.
- Get feedback if you can. Whether it’s an application that didn’t get through the interview stage or you made it to the interview but didn’t get the position, ask for feedback on yourself and your application. You might not get feedback every time, but when you do, the information can be helpful for figuring out what you need to address or bring forward more in a future application. Just like with the amount of rejection you’ll likely encounter, it will be hard to read critiques on you and your work, so try to look at the words as a means to move forward and to grow from the experience as a whole.
- If you have a type of job in mind, do some informal interviews to get some behind-the-scenes info. Sometimes the key to getting into a new field or area of research is to get info from someone behind the front lines. Especially if you have an idea of where you’d like to end up, find a mentor from your own network or cold call someone from your university/city that has the job you’d like to have someday. Set up an informational interview with them, where you can ask questions about what their job is like, how they got there, and what resume reviewers in the field are looking for as they go through pile of job applications. It won’t guarantee you a position anywhere, but having some inside information on how things work and what’s important in the field can help you have a leg up when it comes to structuring your application materials.
- Don’t forget to talk to your references beforehand. Your personal references likely won’t be contacted until later in the application review process, but before you click ‘submit’ make sure to ask them if they can be a reference and let them know the type of jobs you’re applying for. There’s not a lot of things more embarrassing then having a prospective employer call a personal reference and surprise them with news of your job searches and questions about you and your working style.
With this week’s shorter post to set you on your way, I’m back to juggling job applications while doing what I need for my current job, and looking forward to the day when I can have my writing brain back in full again. Until then, I’ll keep on putting myself out there, learning from applications that didn’t make the cut, and staying optimistic (as much as possible) in the face of what I’ll refer to as a life opportunity instead of a career challenge!
If you’re interested in additional discussions or have a question about career transitions, you can join the #withaPhD chat moderated by Jennifer Polk on Monday Feb 22nd from noon-1pm EST on the topic “Surprising jobs and careers.”
We’ve already set up three members of your entourage: a coach, a dreamer, and a doer. These people are here to push you further as you build up your skills and expertise and are here to provide different perspectives on your work. But who is in your entourage who can see you as you are and be there for you no matter what you’re going through? Who’s first reaction won’t be to coach you through an obstacle but instead will listen to each aspect of your situation as it is? This person is the fourth member of your entourage, and is your ally: A person who is on your side, no matter what.
What exactly is an ally? The dictionary definition of ally (verb) is “to be united formally; to associate or connect by some mutual relationship,” and as a noun, simply “supporter”. Your relationship with your ally is founded on shared experiences, mutual support and understanding. While your other three entourage members provide new perspectives, your ally is someone who sees work, life, and a career in science in the same way you do. An ally is someone who shares your dreams, recognizes your anxieties, and understands your goals, and doesn’t always have advice or an opposing view point for each situation you face.
There are a lot of great examples of best friend/allies out there: Captain Kirk and Spock, Tyrion and Bronn, Spongebob and Patrick, Austria and Hungary. While allies do have complementary perspectives or skills, what’s key is that they are by your side through thick and thin. Why? Just because they’re your friend. While the goal of the coaching relationship should be clear in terms of what the expectations are from both parties, for an ally the relationship is simple: Just be there when your ally needs you, and they’ll be there for you in return. But ‘being there’ seems like a bit of a vague term: what is an ally’s actual job in your research entourage?
What makes a good ally?
- A person you can talk to and know you’ll get a straight answer from. A good ally is always on your side-but also knows the importance of talking straight. An ally is a person that you can trust to hear the truth from, a person that won’t pull punches, and one who will see things as they are. While the truth may not always be easy to take, having someone in your entourage who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is can help you see the truth in complex situations.
- A person who see the world through similar eyes as you. The best kind of ally is one who has a similar outlook on the world as you. Because your ally isn’t you, even though they are a lot like you, they can see a situation with a clearer perspective, and can offer advice as to what they would do in your shoes. This advice is generally well-given and thought out, because it comes from a person who knows you well, who sees your dreams and your worries, and who most importantly sees things from a similar viewpoint, but not the exact same one, thus providing a bit of neutrality in assessing the situation. A third party perspective from someone with a similar viewpoint can help you see a way forward when your own doubts or frustrations might be blocking the way.
- Laughs and celebrates with you during your good times and empathizes with your tough times. Allies are always the first ones to share good news with, the ones who will applaud the loudest at your presentations, and the ones who will be as excited for you as you are for yourself when you accomplish things. And when times aren’t as easy going or successful, your ally is there to listen to your story and to hear you out when you’re feeling down. No matter what, you’ve got someone at your back, good times or bad!
- The person that reminds you that your dreams are valid and you should go for them. Often times in grad school or research, it’s easy to get frustrated. Things won’t work the first time, we won’t make as much progress as we thought we would, we didn’t get enough papers, conference talks, grants, etc. It’s easy to tear yourself down in these situations and start to think that maybe you’re just not cut out for research, or wherever you wanted your own dreams of a career to take you. An ally reminds you that above everything else, you’re you, and that your dreams are never wrong if they’re truly your dreams.
- A person who listens and doesn’t always have a solution or advice, but sometimes just listens. Sometimes people can help us get out of a difficult situation, or know what to say to make us feel better, or know how to fix something, or even just make us smile. And sometimes those things are all hard to do. Sometimes all you can do for your ally, and them for you, is to hear the other person out. This is likely the hardest task for any ally relationship. It can be hard to feel like you can’t do anything, or to feel like you should say something or make a suggestion. A good ally recognizes that sometimes support sometimes comes just from being present, and nothing else.
Where do you find good allies?
Most often, your best allies are your lab mates, office mates, class mates, or colleagues met through other professional/outreach/extracurricular activities. While in the first week of work you may not have been sure if you’d get on well with your immediate lab mates, sometimes allies appear where you least expect them: perhaps you didn’t click with someone right away until you suffered through a really bad talk together, and spent the next hour chatting about all the same mistakes that annoyed you. While research tends to be a very independent day-to-day task, make an effort to step out of your own world and learn about someone else’s. If you don’t have an easily identifiable ally in your own research group, strike up a conversation with someone at seminar, or in the break room, a lunchtime seminar/workshop, or at the PCR machine you’re both waiting on. The key with finding good friends is being open to meeting them and not being overly drawn into your own world for the entire working day as you obsess over data, lab work, and other goings-on in your own little bubble.
I’m thankful for the many allies I’ve had in my graduate and post-doctoral careers who have become some of the best friends a person could ask for. Looking back on the good and bad moments of any career, my allies were the people who were there to listen, to laugh, to cry, and to complain with, and were the reasons that the day-to-day stresses of research felt manageable instead of insufferable. I’m happy for the people that I’ve shared cheeky Friday afternoon drinks with, espoused similar viewpoints on the mismanagement of scientific research, and most of all the people with a vision and drive to work for a world that is better in some (even small) way than the one we were currently in. As for my allies (both past and present), I can always trust in them to tell me what’s on their mind about an idea or a plan, to hold me back or to push me onward when needed, and to help me keep on dreaming big, no matter what challenges come about.
Research is not an easy gig, but the allies we have can make it seem like we’re not alone. They are there to support, understand, and listen, and should always serve as a reminder that what you’re doing is good and that there’s no reason that you can’t achieve what you set out to do. Now the entourage is almost complete, with only one member remaining: Your sensei. So until we finish our entourage series next week: be sure to tell your research ally thanks for what they’ve done for you, and go out and find some go-to friends if you don’t have one yet. Just be sure you don’t make the ally relationship too formal; if they ask for a signed treaty, retreat!