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’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!
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).