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).