I think it’s safe to say that most of us have benefited from Jorge Cham’s PhD comic series even if our research and general productivity hasn’t. It’s easy to spend an afternoon scrolling through the comic archive and thinking Yep, been there, done that, seen that. His all-too-real depictions of situations strike a chord with many aspects of life working in a research laboratory. One of his recent comics resonated for me on two separate occasions. Originally posted on Sept 4th, I think I actually laughed out loud when I first saw this one:
I’ve seen far too many similar warnings posted in the lab, office, or shared kitchen, reminding us all that equipment belongs to one person and one person ONLY, or reminders that ‘your mother doesn’t work here, so clean up after yourself’. I’ve received a fair amount of scorn from lab managers and senior grad students or post-docs for using a piece of equipment without signing the log book about the 2 minutes I spend on the machine. I have borne witness to a wide array of emails on department and even college-wide email lists chastising someone for a minor infraction or something that could have been handled more maturely and directly (instead of involving the entire department). While Jorge Cham might lead us to believe in his comic that grad school isn’t kindergarden anymore, sometimes I feel like we’re back in elementary school all over again, but this time with the mantra of ‘sharing is good’ replaced by messages on snarky post-it notes indicating that if someone doesn’t clean up their mess they’ll be promptly sent to the 3rd circle of hell.
While it’s easy to laugh about situations like this, these attitudes in academia, and in scientific research as a whole, can hold us back from making progress in our work. I was reminded of this comic a second time last week when I found this article “How the modern work place has become more like preschool”. The article is not comic material but instead discusses the reasons for the increase in the number of jobs requiring interpersonal skills. While the loss of many ‘unskilled’ jobs may not be of concern to someone holding or working toward a PhD, in today’s competitive workforce there are WAY more PhDs than ever before. The traditional place of employment, academia, can’t make homes for all of us, and those that are trying to get into any sort of permanent position will be competing against a long list of other applicants, some with more publications, more grants, or more relevant experience. Interpersonal skills and how you work with others in a team setting can make the difference in you landing your dream job versus you landing just any job.
The Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman wrote a paper on the relationship between cognitive skills (e.g., intelligence as measured by aptitude tests) and non-cognitive skills (e.g., motivation, perseverance, self-control, etc.) and how these two factors correlated to endpoints related to success in life: getting a 4-year degree, how much money you make, etc. While there are quite a few conclusions that can be drawn from the results, depicted as surface plots over the two-dimensions of cognitive and non-cognitive skills (scroll to the end of the paper), the quick take-home message is that it takes more than just being smart to succeed. It’s a combination of how smart you are as well as how well you make it through life’s challenges and how you interact with teachers and peers. There is a strong need in today’s workforce, and in science especially, for people who can empathize, see others emotions, and respond to them appropriately.
The New York Times article goes on to describe the reason for its title: “Children move from art projects to science experiments to the playground in small groups, and their most important skills are sharing and negotiating with others. But that soon ends, replaced by lecture-style teaching of hard skills, with less peer interaction. Work, meanwhile, has become more like preschool.” This is an all-too-true situation for those of us in the scientific fields: we spend our time in high school and undergrad gaining in-depth knowledge on a topic before we graduate. Then for those of us that decide to continue our studies, the world suddenly changes: the bulk of our time is now spent in lab meetings presenting our research, learning a new protocol from a lab mate, collecting data with a collaborator, or revising papers with our advisor. While there is always a part of your research where you will work independently, the collaborative atmosphere is much more prevalent after your undergraduate studies.
It’s here that the natural sciences such as biology and chemistry can learn a lot from engineering programs. A bachelor’s degree in engineering is designed with the knowledge that after graduation most engineers will work in teams on large projects. As a student, group projects may seem tedious, but they provide experience with necessary teamwork skills such as how to divide tasks based on the members’ skills and knowledge. As such, students who will end up as professional scientists could also benefit from team projects. Just like how trends in the general workforce are leaning away from hiring people that can only do manual labor tasks, scientists need to hone their teamwork and collaborative skills in order to set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd.
Another section of the NYT article describes a situation that many of us have likely faced already: “Say two workers are publishing a research paper. If one excels at data analysis and the other at writing, they would be more productive and create a better product if they collaborated. But if they lack interpersonal skills, the cost of working together might be too high to make the partnership productive.” This is an example of something that happens all too often in academia. If people know that you’re a genius at what you do but know that you can’t be bothered to sit in a room with other people and work together on a problem, who do you think they’re going to hire for the project manager position or ask to help write a grant with them?
As stated in the NYT article, “Cooperation, empathy and flexibility have become increasingly vital in modern-day work.” Likewise, science has become a world of collaborations: large-scale international grants, multiple PIs with teams of graduate students and post-docs, data that requires expertise from several areas of knowledge, or a complex physical infrastructure (such as the particle accelerator at CERN). Science does not work in a vacuum, especially in this day and age where so many of the questions that remain to be answered are pressing and complex. As professional scientists we need to learn how to play nicely with the rest of the class. As you build a network of collaborators, you’ll find that this will be much easier if you earn people’s respect for who you are both as a scientist and as a person.
While non-cognitive skills and ‘politeness’ lessons may not have been covered since your time in kindergarten, you will spend your entire life outside the classroom being evaluated on this skillset. It’s your responsibility to be aware of how you work with others and your strengths and weaknesses outside of your basic foundation of knowledge. To give some guidance, I’ve compiled a few things to keep in mind in order to help you play well with others.
- Visualize any collaborative venture as a team effort. When you work in a group, look at people’s skills and expertise and think about what components each member can contribute. Keep in mind who will be timely with their efforts, who will need additional support, and who can be trusted to finish their contribution independently.
- Foster an environment for sharing your research. Take ownership of your research but don’t keep it to yourself. Talk about ideas with your lab mates, your PI, as well as researchers completely outside of your research group. Seek out new perspectives on your work even if it’s not a formal collaboration by sharing insights and data with your peers and people outside your lab.
- Your mother may not work in your lab, but pretend that she does. Moms tend to give good insights on how society expects us to behave. Even if you’ve been out of her house for a while, keep her recommendations in the back of your mind when it comes to how you conduct yourself (and the next three bullets are certainly mom-approved!).
- Be nice to everyone. No matter what level of lab/office hierarchy, be they technicians, office staff, or administrative personnel, being friendly and cordial to people even when you don’t have to be will make your day-to-day life easier. It’s not just about being nice to your PI but to the people who will bring you deliveries, get your paperwork sorted so you can get paid, and who may or may not look past office deadlines in order to help you out.
- Think before you speak, ESPECIALLY in emails. There will be a lot of tricky situations you’ll be faced with: scientists that don’t respond to emails, challenging your findings, or demanding more than was agreed on in a grant proposal. You don’t need to be snarky or defensive, and most issues can be managed politely without the need for overly strong wording. Remember that your emails can very easily get forwarded to a department head or saved in someone’s inbox, so use some thought before you send them!
- Pay no mind to jerks. You will run into people that you won’t like, ones who won’t work well as a team or who will continually seem to poke you with a stick. Don’t worry about them, and as your teacher or mom said: mind your own business, at least when it comes to letting people interfere with your work and your mood. Do your best to try to establish a professional relationship as needed, and if that person is truly caustic then find other teammates to work more with, and be comforted by the fact that they’ll likely run into later issues with finding collaborators and colleagues in their own careers.
Academia can feel like a ‘don’t touch this it’s mine’ kind of world, where the good guys just can’t win. There will inevitably be people that make messes or that won’t be nice to you. How can you set yourself apart from this preschool mentality? By setting an example through your courtesy and kindness. Focus on establishing a positive attitude for teamwork and collaboration, and work on the transition from a mindset of ‘don’t touch this it’s mine’ to ‘it’s nice to make friends!’ Your research now as well as your career in the future will be better off for it!